A Washington-based software developer is recruiting other techies to combat the spread of the new coronavirus in his native Ethiopia, following the lead of countries such as China and South Korea with early experience in what is now a global pandemic.
“We need an army of tech volunteers to help the Ethiopian Ministry of Health collect, analyze and report to the agency so that we can assist them in the time of need,” Mike Endale wrote in his online solicitation.
“The better data collection/analysis/reporting there is, the better the response and the more effective the mitigation strategies will be.”
Since he began recruiting Tuesday on social media, Endale has enlisted more than 500 volunteers with various skills in software programing, project management, design and more, he said in a phone interview Friday.
By then, nine cases of novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, had been confirmed but no deaths had been reported in the Horn of Africa country.
Poverty and internal displacement from armed conflict have weakened the health safety net in Africa’s second most populous country, home to 114 million. And Human Rights Watch reported Friday that “[m]illions of Ethiopians living under a monthslong government-imposed shutdown of internet and phone services in western Oromia are being left in the dark.”
The 38-year-old Endale came to the United States in 2000 and is a principal in BlenCorp, a small information technology firm in Washington. Its portfolio includes projects for the District of Columbia and federal governments, business, industry and advisory groups.
Endale said the volunteers, mostly from the United States, Canada and Europe, are writing open-source code to create tools that could be used to raise public awareness of coronavirus risks and for contact tracing.
“How do you push information out to the public? Things need to be built,” he said, citing social media messenger bots for Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms. He added that some volunteers are working on an emergency response for contact tracing, which identifies an infected person and follows up with those who might have been near that person.
Software’s role in the coronavirus public health emergency has bumped up against privacy concerns. In China, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, governments are using GPS phone tracking software to track people’s movement, retrace the movement of an infected person before diagnosis or to make sure a patient does not break quarantine, according to the Morning Brew business newsletter.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog for civil liberties in the digital world, last week laid out principles for “data collection and digital monitoring of potential carriers of COVID-19.” It said data collection “privacy intrusions” should be proportionate, science-based, transparent and finite, ending after the crisis has been contained.
Endale acknowledged privacy concerns in gathering information for Ethiopia’s government. But, he said, “the data collection part is administered by the folks in the health ministry. … They house the data. We’re just building the tools.”