A group of young people hold up a banner about the Ebola hackathon

Lokole: Congolese Youth are Using Digital Technology to Combat Ebola

May 20, 2019
The Congolese Ministry of Health organized a hackathon to link digital technology with the fight against the Ebola epidemic that has been ravaging the eastern region of the country since August 2018

KINSHASA, May 13, 2019― A few weeks ago, these seven happy young people did not even know each other! And yet here they are, united by the same goal of combating the Ebola virus epidemic that has been ravaging the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for almost a year. Their weapon: digital technology. Emmanuel, Ursula, Aurore, Joel, David, Israël, and Maria—all young Congolese students in their early twenties—won the first hackathon organized in Kinshasa on the theme of Ebola. They will receive support from the World Bank to complete their project.

Organized in March 2019 by the Ministry of Health, Kinshasa Digital, and Internews on the occasion of the launch of the country’s dedicated digital agency (Agence nationale d’ingénierie clinique d’information et d’informatique de santé ANICiiS), the hackathon sought to “identify talent from among the younger generations.” For a very simple reason: “Qualified and professional human resources with a firm grasp of new information and communication technologies are indispensable for the creation of a digital transformation agency in the public health sector,” explains Jessica Ilunga, Communications Officer in the Ministry of Health and co-organizer of the hackathon.

Some 50 students in communication, journalism, medicine, and computer science grouped into multidisciplinary teams of five to seven individuals each worked for 24 consecutive hours on the following topic: “How can Ebola response teams leverage new technologies to achieve their communication goals at the local, national, and international level?” Each team then gave a five-minute presentation of its solution to a panel of experts from the health and digital sectors. Prizes were awarded to the winners at the end of Kinshasa Digital Week, the largest digital forum in the DRC. The second staging of this event was held in mid-April this year in Kinshasa. 

Emmanuel, Ursula, Aurore, Joel, David, Israël, and Maria won with their project, Lokole, an Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) mobile application. The application is designed to facilitate the real-time transmission of data and information between communities and the Ebola response teams. “We gave this name to our application because the Lokole is a traditional drum that is used in various provinces across Congo, not only as a musical instrument but also as a tool to relay messages,” explains Aurore Beia, a 23-year-old medical student and member of the winning team.

The Lokole application allows community workers to recognize the symptoms of Ebola by completing a questionnaire and then alerting a response team. The Ebola Response Coordination Team receives all alerts simultaneously and can use the Lokole application to transmit them to the field teams, if need be. A final report is sent to the Ministry of Health. “Lokole is a link between the community and the community health care workers, between the community health care workers and the response teams, and between the response teams and the Ministry of Health,” sums up Aurore.

"We know that the Ebola epidemic is raging in remote areas with low Internet connectivity, this is why Lokole is a free USSD application that doesn’t require an Internet connection or a smartphone. This is a cheap solution that is accessible to everyone." — David Malaba

“Real-time management of information by the different components of the Ebola response will help detect and provide treatment to patients more quickly and deploy resources on the ground more swiftly, which will help lower Ebola mortality rates. That is what is key about Lokole,” states David Malaba, a 23-year-old computer science student and creator of Eliteframe, a digital assistant start-up.

“We know that the Ebola epidemic is raging in remote areas with low Internet connectivity,” he continues. “This is why Lokole is a free USSD application that doesn’t require an Internet connection or a smartphone. This is a cheap solution that is accessible to everyone.”

Among the prizes to be awarded to the Lokole team is participation in a three-month mentoring and coaching program at Ingenious City, a technology incubator in Kinshasa that will help the team optimize its project. “Our goal is to develop, within this timeframe, a Lokole prototype that is ready to be rolled out in the national Ebola response system. If Lokole can help reduce this epidemic’s mortality rate by even 1%, our work will not have been in vain,” David concludes.

The World Bank is supporting the efforts of the Congolese Government and the international community to combat the 10th Ebola outbreak that has been plaguing eastern DRC since August 2018.  The Bank has, to date, provided half of the financing to support the response effort, which will cost a total of $80 million. It is also providing technical assistance to strengthen the DRC’s health system and is investing in pandemic preparedness in the DRC’s nine neighboring countries to prevent the virus from crossing borders. Although the current Ebola outbreak has infected over 1,500 persons and claimed more than 1,000 lives, it has not yet been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

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Note: A second #EbolaHackathon will be organized by Internews, the Ministry of Health, Kinshasa Digital and the News Online Media Association (MILRDC) on May 30 and 31 at the French Institute in Goma, North Kivu, as the third hackathon targeting students to find new ICT solutions to protect and promote basic human rights. Visit the Facebook page: #243HackDroitsHumains. This activity will be funded by the European Union and USAID.