IBM Health Corps

Data, Design, and Disease: Why Mosquitoes Don’t Stand a Chance

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Last January, I worked alongside a team of fellow IBMers to reimagine how Panamá fights back against infectious diseases like Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya. We were a team of experts deployed via IBM Health Corps – part of IBM’s moonshot in healthcare – and designed specifically to make sure everyone has access to technology that can make our communities healthier and safer. This pro bono program sends IBM professionals on-site to understand the needs of the people at the core of a complex health problem, and strategically help advance their ability to manage their challenges using technology and design.

Over the course of three weeks, our team created a geo-referenced vector-borne disease surveillance system including a mobile app for vector technicians to collect mosquito field data, an API (application programming interface) that delivers the field data to a mapping platform, and an Epidemiological Dashboard configured as a geospatial visualization of disease vectors (mosquitoes) and human cases. This system will enable epidemiologists and health policymakers to visualize and verify scenarios, collaborate with regional public health officials, and make decisions to control infectious disease outbreaks.

Looking back, I had three key observations about this project:

Time, data and strategy determine a team’s ability to tackle an ambitious goal – Our IBM epidemiologist provided her expertise helping the team understand the various scenarios in which mosquito-borne disease spreads throughout the population. It’s all a matter of time, data and strategy. Data powers how public health officials allocate resources and strategically target areas at risk. When these actions to fight mosquitoes occur too late, it is often because data failed to reach decision makers fast enough. And yet, it is the people on the front lines of vector control – the vector technicians – who feel responsible. Empathizing with the vector technicians led us to create a digitized system that helped empower them to be more closely tied to the decision makers, so they could collaborate to intervene before communities were affected. The stakes were high, but as a team we were highly invested in being able to make a difference.

Our Kanban Board for tracking tasks

Technology must center on its users – Design thinking exercises were constantly influencing how the back-end technology for our vector control system was written. The end result was a service that was fully reflective of the conceptual model employed to capture vector control data. As a designer, I had only worked with established technologies, so being able to influence such a foundational piece of the system was probably my favorite part of the project. The experience was design-driven in the most foundational sense, which is to say that no single piece of the vector-borne disease surveillance system was created in isolation. Each piece was built with the various user groups in mind (the vector technicians, epidemiologists, and healthy policy makers) and how they related to each other.

Innovation is a collaborative process – Being on-site for three weeks meant that we developed close relationships both within the team and with our clients. This made each of us personally vested in the outcome of the project. By supporting each other and maintaining transparent channels of communication, we became great friends and collaborators while creating something we were all proud of.

Jennifer Whyte is a User Experience Designer with IBM Watson.

Related Resources:
How We Designed Tools to Combat Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya
Why IBM Sends Its Best Employees Abroad for Four Weeks

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