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Liberia Asks Chapel Hill For Help With Ebola Outbreak

a map of Ebola deaths in Liberia, broken down by county.

From his office in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Steven King has no illusions about his efforts on the Ebola front as compared to those on the ground. His role was made clear on  a recent conference call between him and his counterparts in the country.

"My wife didn't realize I was on the conference call, and she screamed down 'Don't forget to clean the bathroom,'" said King, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  "And everyone on the call got a kick out of it, thinking 'Here we are fighting Ebola, and Steven's got to go clean the bathroom.'"

It was some much-needed levity. More than 1,000 people have died from Ebola in Liberia; and the rate of deaths skyrocketed over the past month.

For the past two weeks King has been leading a team of student volunteers to build The tool comes at the request of the Liberian Ministry of Information, and the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. The lead developer on the project is Casey Miller, a recent UNC graduate who spent her time off between an internship at the L.A. Times and a new job at The Wall Street Journal building the back end.

Visualization Is Key

With a seemingly endless rise in the death toll in Liberia and surrounding countries, it's been difficult for those on the ground to get a firm grasp on how much worse the problem is getting. After some back and forth with those most likely to use the tool, King said the graphic visualization has started proving useful.

"The first time we gave it to the team on the ground and showed them what we were seeing, they didn't realize the trend line was shooting so high," said King. "And there was kind of a gasp in the room. Like 'Are you sure these numbers are right?' And when we told them 'yes,' I think there was a real surprise there. So we saw immediately the value of the visualization."

A chart showing The cumulative deaths in Liberia, by date.
The cumulative deaths in Liberia, by date.

The site breaks the reported cases and deaths down by county. It shows how many health care workers have been infected, and at what rate. The most important information stares you in the face from the start, and a few extra clicks give a more nuanced, if more depressing, look at the situation.

But the project has faced limitations. For one - it's hard to get the most accurate information about a crisis happening on the other side of the world, particularly in a developing nation.

"We're building it with whatever data we have, dealing with the political implications; dealing with a problem like this and all the other problems Liberia has faced over the years," King says.

The next hurdle is funding. King said in order to expand the scope beyond the borders of Liberia (a border the disease does not recognize), the project will need some aid money. As Kate Weeks, a student researcher on the project says, "When someone calls you and asks if you have time to help with the crisis that is Ebola, you're like, 'All right. I can make some time.'"

But these things take more than time. And if they're to do more predictive modeling, the process will become even more difficult, if all the more helpful.

Eric Mennel prepares the afternoon/evening "drive time" newscast on WUNC. Previously, he was a producer for The Story with Dick Gordon. Eric has reported for All Things Considered, This American Life, 99% Invisible and other radio programs. He covered protests and security measures at the 2012 Republican National Convention for WUSF Tampa and NPR News. One day, he hopes to own a home with a wrap-around porch.
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