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Ebola is not the crisis it once was in Africa, especially in Liberia. There, schools shuttered since autumn reopened Feb. 16, and in the week before that, only three new Ebola cases were reported in the whole nation.

But back in August, the disease was raging and hundreds were dying each week. The Liberian Ministry of Information was working with Ken Harper, a Syracuse University associate professor, to improve the flow of information about the crisis. Harper in turn contacted Steven King, assistant professor of multimedia and interactive journalism, to come up with a website design.

The epidemic became the catalyst for a new online data-sharing model – a model created here at Carolina. A team of 10 UNC volunteer designers and developers, led by King, launched the smartphone-friendly website (also only two weeks after Liberia’s call for help.

“I’m a storyteller. I’m a digital and data storyteller,” King said. “Sometimes that’s through visualization, sometimes that’s through a traditional narrative piece, but in this particular case it was through a data-driven website.”

The site uses bold, clear graphics that are easy to read on a mobile device. The first screen has the numbers of total cases and total deaths, as well as the latest tally for the week. The next screens show that information over time in area charts, with confirmed cases or deaths in teal, probable in fuchsia and suspected in yellow. Poke or click anywhere on those screens and the exact date and number pop up; same for the line charts tracking health-care workers, cases and deaths.

In addition, shaded areas on a map of Liberia show the severity of the outbreak in each county.

Building the website was the perfect real-world project for students in King’s class, “Design and Development of Mobile Apps.” The team included journalism students Clinton King, Grayson Mendenhall, Denni Hu, Daniel Lockwood and Kate Weeks as well as information and library science major Alison Blain and computer science major João Ritter. Two 2014 journalism graduates, Eric Pait and Casey Miller, also signed up.

“I was pleasantly surprised at how fast we were able to build it,” said King, who also taught two other classes that semester. “To think that you can take a bunch of undergrads and recent graduates and do something like this in less than two weeks, it’s a pretty amazing feat. And I’m very proud of them for that.”

Once the website was launched, King and his team needed the data to get the project rolling. At first they used information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but eventually data began to come in from Ministry of Health and Ministry of Information teams in Liberia.

“That on the ground part was the most difficult piece of it,” King said, because the people the group relied on to provide the information were also dealing with caring for family members who had contracted the disease.

But when the data began to flow, the website proved very useful in the fight against Ebola. “We were able to provide things to the decision makers, to the president of Liberia and to the media around the world, to give them accurate, visualized data,” King said.

Media attention drew calls for help from other groups needing similar help. “For example, one organization wanted us to build the same thing to trace the flu epidemic. But we couldn’t take on more things,” King said.

Now that Ebola has almost disappeared in Liberia, the website has run its course. But King said the team formed valuable partnerships with business analysis software giant SAS, the World Bank, USAID and even the White House.

And the website’s open-source model, hosted on GitHub, is so flexible that it can be up and running quickly if it’s needed again. It also has backend coding for predictive models and other features not visible on the Ebola site.

“We built this in a way that we could turn this on for any data set,” King said. It doesn’t have to be a crisis situation.

By Susan Hudson, University Gazette

Published March 2, 2015