As Ebola continues to take its deadly toll in West Africa, a team of professors rallied to build a website to track the outbreak in Liberia.

Photo credit: Ebola in Liberia

Photo credit: Ebola in Liberia

As Ebola continues to devastate West Africa, President Obama announced today that the U.S. military will commit more resources to combat the disease. Ebola survivor Dr. Kent Brantly also spoke today at a Senate hearing in Washington about the outbreak.

Ken Harper, an associate professor at Syracuse University and the director of the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement, understands the crisis in West Africa all too well, having worked in Liberia for six years. So when a former student, who now works at the Ministry of Information in Liberia, reached out to him for help, Harper didn't hesitate.

The government in Liberia needed a better way to track the number of Ebola cases and to make that data easily accessible to the public. This was no easy task, especially in a country still suffering from the effects of a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. But within weeks, Harper and other professors created a website called Ebola in Liberia, which provides the latest data about the outbreak.

Not Impossible Now spoke with Harper about the site, which was launched last week. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Q: How did you get involved with the project?

Harper: One of my former students, Thomas Karyha, works with the Ministry of Information in Liberia and the United Nations. He messaged me on Facebook and [asked] if Syracuse was interested in partnering with the Ministry of Information to try to figure out a way to get [Ebola] data out to the public to make it more accessible. And I said, “I have no idea how to do that, but let’s figure it out.”

Q: Tell us about some of the key people you recruited to help build the website.

Harper: It became quickly apparent that we needed a lot more help to get this done quickly, so I called my friend Steven King, who's a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

I said, "Steven, we’ve got this all-hands-on-deck emergency. We need to get together and make something happen. Are you interested in joining the team?" And he said, “I’m very interested. Let’s do it.” And within a day, he had a server set up. He actually started his first class with students trying to tackle just the idea of the problem of what we were wrestling with.

I also called another friend Brian Dawson during this time. He's a designer with IDEO in San Francisco. He became the director of user experience. Steven is the director of development, and my role is project management and pulling the whole team together.

Q: What's the main function of the site?

Harper: What we needed was an informational dashboard to be able to allow government officials, the public and concerned parties to understand, very simply, are we better off or worse off than yesterday. So they can see the latest up-to-date numbers as reported by the Ministry of Health through the Ministry of Information. It’s red light, green light. 

Q: You've spent a lot of time in Liberia. An Ebola outbreak would be a crisis for any country, but why is it particularly devastating for Liberia?

Harper: They’re recovering from 20 years of dictatorship and a civil war, which left 250,000 — mostly civilians — dead. And hundreds of thousands are former child soldiers who are permanently and mentally and physically scarred. There was never any prosecution of war criminals, not a lot of justice. And you have a very complex recovery from a very difficult period from a very poor part of the planet. It’s kind of a perfect storm for a disease like this to take hold.

Q: Just the fact that you were able to assemble a team and launch the website quickly must have been a boost for a country that doesn't have many resources.

Harper: You’ve got to start somewhere. They have this saying in Liberia, which is one of my favorites and I use it all the time in class. It’s “small small.” How are you doing? You doing better? Small small. It basically means with the weight of the past on us, we move forward slowly, but surely. We’re used to solutions at Twitter speeds and expect those kinds of results. But in most of the world where problems run super deep, the reality is “small small” is the only option. 

Learn more about the team behind the Ebola in Liberia project at their website.

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