Jay Achar was treating Ebola patients at a makeshift hospital in Sierra Leone, and he needed more time.
This was in September, near the height of the West African Ebola epidemic. Achar was part of a team that traveled to Sierra Leone under the aegis of a European organization called Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders. In a city called Magburaka, MSF had erected a treatment center that kept patients carefully quarantined, and inside the facility’s high-risk zone, doctors like Archar wore the usual polythene “moon suits,” gloves, face masks, and goggles to protect themselves from infection.
With temperatures rising to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, Achar could stay inside for only about an hour at a time. “The suit doesn’t let your skin breathe. It can’t,” he says. “You get very, very hot.” And even while inside, so much of his time was spent not treating the patients, but merely recording their medical information—a tedious but necessary part of containing an epidemic that has now claimed an estimated 10,000 lives. Due to the risk of contamination, he would take notes on paper, walk the paper to the edge of the enclosure, shout the information to someone on the other side of a fence, and later destroy the paper. “The paper can’t come out of the high-risk zone,” he says.
Looking for a better way, he phoned Ivan Gayton, a colleague at the MSF home office in London. Gayton calls himself a logistician. He helps the organization get stuff done. In 2010, he tracked down someone at Google who could help him use its Google Earth service to map the locations of patients during a cholera epidemic in Haiti. As part of its charitable arm,Google.org, the tech giant runs a “crisis response team” that does stuff like this. So, after talking to Achar, Gayton phoned Google again, and the company responded with a new piece of tech: a computer tablet that could replace those paper notes and all that shouting over the fence
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