These hackers are developing apps to stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa

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Image: Virginia Bioinformatics Institute

The rapid spread of Ebola in West Africa has blindsided foreign governments and international aid organizations since its outbreak six months ago. One group of university researchers and hackers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the US think they may have an answer to help stem the outbreak.

The Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory at the university’s Virginia Bioinformatics Institute is holding a hackathon this week, “The Computing for Ebola Challenge.”

This isn’t your typical hackathon with pie-in-the-sky ideas that rarely see the light of day. It has brought together at least 80 programmers from inside and outside the university to scramble through highly sophisticated synthetic data sets provided by the US Department of Defense (DOD). The data offers hackers a virtual representation of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea—the countries with the highest number of Ebola cases—including population and mapping data.

The goal is to create tangible, easy-to-use web apps for residents in these countries to use in emergency response situations.

One that’s already in the works, explains doctoral student Caitlin Rivers, is a mobile app where a user who feels he is suffering from Ebola symptoms could send a text to a public health agency to report themselves sick. In turn, the agency would send a specially outfitted vehicle-free of charge-to safely transport the individual to a hospital or critical care center, as to not spread infection.

“We wanted to leverage our skill sets to do more than just give money online,” Rivers told Quartz. “Whether that be analyses of epidemiological data or developing user platforms that are easy to use but effective, we knew we had the technology and resources to do something meaningful.”

For now, the ideas float on a webpage where hackers crowdsource their ideas. However, the team could unveil apps within two to three weeks after the hackathon ends, says Dr. Madhav Marathe, director of the laboratory and head of the project.

For Marathe, who has spent the better part of his career developing models to fight infectious diseases around the world, the size and scope of Ebola is “monumental” and requires an equally unique response to stop its further spread. The challenge is the only hackathon in the world solely dedicated to fighting the disease.

“Our goal is to help those there on the ground, albeit in a bit part, who are fighting this epidemic every day,” Marathe tells Quartz. “The work we’re doing will help coordinate NGOs, medical personnel and residents.”