Pando

BBC's Whatsapp Ebola alerts are more proof that tech can help save the world -- it just can't do it alone

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 16, 2014

From The News Desk

In an effort to help combat the spread of Ebola, the BBC has created a new service that sends "audio, text message alerts and images" in both French and English to subscribers in West Africa via WhatsApp, the messaging service Facebook acquired for $22 billion in September.

It's an interesting counterpoint to the idea that technology can't help address the Ebola crisis, which has been exacerbated by funding problems and poor infrastrucutre in affected areas. (The BBC's ability to establish itself as a go-to source of information won't hurt it, either.)

Last week, I wrote that software can help save the world, but it can't do it on its own. The post was prompted by a Quartz report on an effort to develop software tools for Ebola-stricken nations and the backlash it stoked toward the idea that software can really make a difference.

As I wrote at the time:

I don’t think anyone would argue that software alone can help manage the Ebola crisis. It’s not like the virus is going to halt its spread just because everyone it might possibly infect has a new app on their phone. Anyone who does think this way might want to remove themselves from the insular bubble of technology, particular if they’re in a country that doesn’t have the same problems as the countries most affected by Ebola’s spread.

Still, there’s little harm in doing whatever you can to help solve a problem that threatens so many people. Arguing otherwise is like saying that I shouldn’t help someone who suffered an injury to their leg increase the elevation because I don’t have a medical degree or suture kit. You don’t have to solve a problem entirely to help, and that’s what these “hackers” are doing. The BBC's efforts aren't much different from the hackers'. It's hoping that information can help people survive a global pandemic, and it's using software to make sure that information reaches the people who need it most. Even if software is only as helpful as the assistance it enables, so long as the BBC's information helps even a few people, there's a strong point in favor of apps.

Which isn't to say this is the first time an organization has experimented with alternate distribution methods for critical information. One group even used Yo, the punchline of Silicon Valley's jaded tech reporters, to let Israelis know when the country comes under rocket fire. It's not a Pulitzer-worthy feat, but making this information easily available is in the public interest, and that should be enough to get at least a few people to stop bleating about software's failings.

It's like I said last week: it's not about the software. It's not even about media organizations trying to get information to the people who most need it. It's about the intersection of technology and infrastructure. If that's not worth exploring -- even if it people whine about tech's arrogance -- I don't know what is.

[photo by European Commission DG ECHO]