Disease maps may help turn Zimbabwe's health crisis around

Published 24 March 2009

The government of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe destroyed the country’s health care system and shut down water treatment facilities; the result has been an uncontrolled cholera outbreak; international aid organizations launch a Web site to help the poor people of Zimbabwe find disease-related information — because their government not only would do nothing to curb the epidemic, it also conceals crucial information from the citizenry

The corrupt, brutal government of Zimbabwe’s sclerotic rulers does nothing by way of providing the people of Zimbabwe with even the most basic services — health, education, transportation, and food. The regime — Mugabe, his entourage, and the leaders of his Zanu-PF Party — are too busy looting the country and fighting for their political survival to attend to the needs of the people. That task has been undertaken by international aid agencies — when, that is, they are allowed to operate in the poor country. Aid workers in Zimbabwe, then, need all the help that they can get, so it is good to read that there is a Web site that enables them to share information. Linda Geddes writes that although Zimbabwe’s cholera outbreak is finally showing signs of abating, the site could help relief groups as they attempt to rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure.

The WikiMapAid will use collaborative wiki software to enable humanitarian workers and others to add health, welfare, and education information to a version of Google Maps that can be viewed by anyone. The hope is that by circumventing official information channels, a clearer picture of what is happening on the ground can develop.

Cholera is normally a preventable and treatable disease, but the Mugabe regime has created conditions which accelerated the spread of the disease.  The government has dismantled Zimbabwe’s public health delivery system, and in order to punish mayors and village leaders who belong to the opposition MDC party, the Mugabe government has shut down water treatment facilities in cities and towns controlled by the opposition, dooming citizens there to infection and disease. A total of 89,649 cases of cholera and 4,041 deaths had been reported in Zimbabwe since the outbreak began in August. New cholera cases, though, have fallen from around 8,000 a week at the start of the year to 2,151 in the first week of March. A central control center was also recently set up in Harare with help from the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health.

Nevertheless, collecting data is still proving difficult, says Paul Garwood of the World Health Organization (WHO). “A crucial element for the control of cholera in Zimbabwe is the need to improve access to information, and the monitoring of new cases and suspected cases in the country,” he says. “Any system that improves data collecting and sharing would be beneficial.”

This is where WikiMapAid could help. Users can create markers to show the location of places such as schools, hospitals, or refugee centers, and they can attach links to video or photos of that place, or post a report of the current situation in the area. Similar services, such as the website HealthMap, have recently been developed to map disease outbreaks around the world.

At the moment, WikiMapAid is focusing on Zimbabwe. As well as schools and suchlike, the tool lets you create other categories of marker to show not only the location of cholera outbreaks but also places like food and water distribution centers, says Rupert Douglas-Bate of Global Map Aid, the organization leading the project. Users can also create new marker categories to show, say, public buildings, or to mark disease outbreaks in other countries.

The Web site is based on a Brazilian project called Wikicrimes, launched last year, in which members of the public share information about crime in their local area. It is designed to provide an alternative source of crime figures to official statistics, which some suspect of government manipulation, according to Vasco Furtado at the University of Fortaleza in Brazil, who developed the software for Wikicrimes and WikiMapAid. “Wikicrimes is a way of showing citizens that a particular area is a problem and to push the government to do something about it,” he says.

Douglas-Bate hopes a similar approach in Zimbabwe could help ensure that aid is distributed correctly. “If we’ve all got the same situation report then we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet,” he says. Also, if people feel they will attract attention from the authorities by posting information, they could perhaps get friends on the outside to post information for them, he says.

As with all wikis, the integrity of the data will depend on the people supplying it. Although moderators will edit and keep track of postings, Douglas-Bate admits unreliable reporting could be a problem. To lessen this risk, Furtado is developing an algorithm that will rate the reputation of users according to whether the information they post is corroborated, or contradicted. “But even if we’re just 80 per cent perfect, we will still have made a huge step forward in terms of being able to galvanize public opinion, raise funds, prioritize need and speed the aid on those who need it most,” Douglas-Bate says.