Steven King Ebola Project 2014

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Photo credit: Morgan Ellis

On Tuesday Sept. 23, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report projecting the number of Ebola cases to surpass one million by January 2015 without intervention. And just this week, the first known case of Ebola was discovered in the US. 

Thankfully, agencies and experts around the world are working on solutions. But one with a solution already in action is right in our backyard. Local Emmy-winning journalist turned professor, Steven King, was the first call of friend and former colleague Ken Harper of the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement at Syracuse University. Harper was asked by a colleague in Liberia to design a tool to combat the deadly disease’s spread.  

And King happened to be skilled in the tool of choice. Visualized data—or data represented in charts, tables or other visually enticing and easily understood formats. If you don’t know King or the team’s mission, it might seem strange that a former journalist without any formal medical training would be asked to create a tool to better understand the disease’s current and potential impact. But King was the perfect choice, because the tool he and the team designed, Ebolainliberia.org, is already proving to be a game changer in the fight against Ebola.  

Why King? 

Perhaps the ability to be constantly engaged in several projects simultaneously is in a journalist’s blood — or maybe it’s just King— but since I met him just over two years ago, I’ve not yet seen him stop to come up for air. Every time I speak with him, he’s working on a new project—like his Knight Foundation grant-funded app FilmSync—or taken a new leadership role, like earlier this year when he became an elder at his church. King is also deeply committed and immersed in his day job at UNC's School of Journalism and Mass Communications—teaching the next generation of journalists to use new and emerging technologies to tell stories in innovative ways. And he does it all while raising two energetic boys under five with his wife of 10 years.  

So, I wasn’t all that surprised in early September when my friend Amy King (Steven’s wife), told me her husband had been pulling all-nighters for over a week to finish a very important project. But my eyebrows rose a bit when I found out the topic of King’s new project was Ebola. Soon after, I saw the finished Ebolainliberia.org and I called King to chat about the site, why he got involved, and what he and the team hopes it will become.  

At the epicenter of new media

King is among the new wave of journalists using non-traditional techniques like coding, apps and data visualization to relay information to consumers. King came to the Triangle from the Washington Post, where he led a team to eight wins at the regional Emmy awards in 2011 while he served as editor and director of video. Now, as the head of the UNC journalism school's newly redesigned Interactive Media program, King is exposing this new form of journalism to his students through classes like “Multimedia Programming and Production.”  

Harper, an associate professor and director of the Newhouse Center, was asked in August to help in the fight against Ebola by former student Thomas Karyah, who works at the Liberian Ministry of Information. When I caught Harper on his coffee break between class and assisting a student earlier this week, I asked, why King? His answer was pretty simple—he'd known King for years. He was smart, a “good dude,” and he could be trusted. Harper said, “In the rolodex of your mind, you think, 'who can I call? Who can I trust? Who will be good to work with?' King was someone I knew I could call on, and he answered the call.”  

The case for EbolainLiberia.org

King was driving to Charlotte with his press-pass in hand to photograph the pre-season matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Charlotte Panthers when he got the call from Harper asking for help in building EbolainLiberia.org. He immediately said yes, and when I asked him why he decided to volunteer for the project he said, “A friendly colleague asked if I could help, and I’ve been blessed with skills and abilities in this area so I was happy to give my time to help others."  

While both Harper and King are Western Kentucky University (WKU) alums, they met while working together at MSNBC.com and on WKU’s Mountain Workshops, a set of annual workshops focused on documentary-style visual journalism. Though those projects had similarly intense timelines with large amounts of content, they were not as important or as data-driven as this specific project. 

To date, the government’s efforts to control the disease’s outbreak and spread had been futile, in part because the data on where and how many people were affected was scattered, dated and hard to decipher. It was also being distributed via PDF files similar to this CDC report. Harper and King knew they could create a tool that would help the Liberian government, “better keep track of (the Ebola) cases,” King said, by visualizing what has happening on the ground in Liberia as accurately as possible. The site could serve both workers on the ground and anyone who wanted more information about how the disease is spreading and affecting Liberia. But the deadline was intense—as King said, “the longer we took, sadly, the more people would be affected and possibly die.” 

Creating the Tool 

Despite the massive time commitment and lack of compensation the team would receive, Harper and King were able to quickly round up a strong team of 10 volunteers. Harper enlisted his former student, Brian Dawson of the global design firm IDEO to construct the user interface design, while King called a few recent graduates for specific roles and jobs he knew they could do quickly. He also put out some calls on Twitter and GitHub. Casey Miller (pictured above), a member of the news apps team at the Washington Post and former UNC journalism student saw King’s post on GitHub and volunteered to help. She wrote the website’s backend using Python, django and open sourced Javascript libraries to expedite the process. The rest of the team consisted of other UNC journalism graduates and students, an information and library sciences student and two students from the computer science department. They were responsible for tasks like API integration, data scripting, designing infographics, and research. Once the assignments to team members were made, Harper and King spent a lot of time creating a workflow for getting the data, cleaning it, and uploading it to the site in a timely manner. 

Using rudimentary visualizations as a brainstorming exercise, the team explored different solutions and identified how the raw data should be visualized to best assist the on-the-ground teams. Now, the Liberian Ministry of Information gathers and sends the data to the team via spreadsheets. The numbers in the spreadsheets are then converted into the charts, maps and graphs displayed on the site. 

With lives on the line, King and Harper took an approach similar to the “lean startup” model in building the site. They pushed to create a minimally viable product (MVP) that would evolve as they received more data and information. They had some battles with people on the ground who wanted to push back the site’s launch so it could display the “the Cadillac of data,” but King and the state-side team pushed for publishing a functioning site that would display the currently available data, then update and improve it as needed. In the end, the team created an MVP in two weeks. In a tired voice, King said, “a lot of code was written in that time.” 

Ebola Report 2014
Credit: EbolainLiberia.org

From the specific order in which data is displayed (cases on left and deaths on right because cases become deaths), to the color of the graphs and charts (a grey scale wasn’t chosen because it wouldn’t project properly on the wall for the on-the-ground team), each design decision was intentional and aimed to meet the end-user’s needs. King said the design and data visualization is important for both workers and decision makers because it allows them, “to see trends and how they correlate together in a visually intriguing way,” which they weren’t able to see when just looking at spreadsheets. 

What’s Next? 

Since its launch, the interactive site has garnered attention from the press, but more importantly, it’s aided those on the ground. Aid workers can better visualize—and thus understand—the scope of the disease’s effect on Liberia’s population. 

The data displayed on the site belongs to the Ministry of Liberia, which uses CDC software to collect and report it. While its data is updated more frequently and faster than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) data, the team hopes to improve upon the data’s timeliness by building an API to connect directly to the CDC software. This will allow close to real-time data reporting. 

Turning the project into a business is not likely in the cards for the group, but with a proof of concept and MVP for the Liberia site, it could expand to cover Ebola cases worldwide. In addition, the team purposely built the site with open sourced code so the model could be expanded upon if another type of outbreak (think flu or other contagious diseases) occurred. While King and the team have been happy to volunteer their time and skills to the project thus far, both told me they recognize their concentrated and extensive efforts are not sustainable. Most of the team members have families and full-time jobs. They are seeking funding to expand the effort in hopes of hiring full-time designers and developers to expand and improve upon the current site. 

Ebola Death Charts Sept 2014
Credit: EbolainLiberia.org

Ebola is horrific and the havoc it is wreaking in Liberia and other Western African countries is devastating. The numbers speak for themselve—276 Liberians died while 413 new cases were identified this week alone. But we should not forget that these numbers—as flashy as they may look— represent real people. In speaking to Harper, it was clear his inspiration to build the site stemmed from his personal relationships with Liberians. After visiting the country five times in the past seven years, he has many friends there. One of whom recently contracted the virus while caring for his father, who was battling the virus in a local clinic. 

Left unmanaged, the disease could decimate the populations, economies and the lives of those directly and indirectly affected. As Ebola continues to spread, having an accurate, visually appealing and user-friendly data source like Ebolainliberia.org is imperative in designing and implementing comprehensive strategies that will successfully combat and eradicate the disease. 

At the end of our conversation, Harper said, he was “thankful there are people like Steven, Thomas, Brian and the rest of the team to help build the site, because together we were able to achieve a goal that couldn’t have been done alone…that’s really good stuff.” 

At which point, I couldn’t help but break the journalist’s code and insert myself into the situation, “I’m thankful for y’all too.”