VanRoekel talks firsthand of Ebola-plagued West Africa

U.S. Agency for International Development Chief Innovation Officer Steven VanRoekel said the region's ability to respond to the crisis was hampered by a crippling lack of infrastructure.

Steven VanRoekel, about two months into his detail as chief innovation officer of the U.S. Agency for International Development and its battle against Ebola, recently spent seven days in Ebola-stricken Liberia. Despite painting a disastrous and bleak picture of a region crippled by the epidemic, VanRoekel did say, in some ways, things were beginning to return to normal.

“A region that was really the shining star of the continent on economic growth, on education — on so many things that were happening here, they’re now seeing stalled,” he said during an Information Technology Industry Council event Wednesday in Washington, D.C. However, while he was there, “they lifted some of the emergency status of the country, some of the curfews were lifted, restaurants were starting to open back up.”

From his technology- and innovation-focused perspective, though, VanRoekel said the region’s response efforts are crippled due to a lacking communications infrastructure.

“The miracle of the Internet is [that it’s] the backbone by which we build all innovation and all connectivity, and it’s just not there” in West Africa, he said. VanRoekel said the region reminds him of his time working with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in India in the late ’90s, one with IT potential waiting to be unlocked.


Before the epidemic hit West Africa, there were improvements being made. However, when Ebola began spreading through the region this summer, the engineers building up the communications network evacuated. “The network has suffered ever since,” he said.

A joint
study from USAID and NetHope found that about 80 percent of Liberia has no cellular service. While in Liberia, VanRoekel used his cellphone in the northern end of the country and “had pretty basic but decent 2G connectivity — I was able to SMS back to my team back in Monrovia,” he said. That type of connectivity, though, tends to follow the road systems and the population, and, even with that, there are large populations without connectivity due to geographical limitations.

USAID workers, and other U.S. responders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Defense Department, are supplied with all of the communications technology they need to effectively track and battle Ebola and treat those who contract it, VanRoekel said. But the focus has in some ways shifted to second-order effects, or as he put it, “thinking about how do we prevent the next Ebola by solving this one in the right ways?” For instance, a lot of VanRoekel’s talks with government officials were about sparking e-government initiatives and “how they could create market demand for communications infrastructure, getting benefit from the populace about being able to connect to their government.”

During his time in Liberia, he said the big success was “getting data harmonized” into a repository hosted by the Liberia Ministry of Health. Now that the data is more meaningful, the job is going to “be about how do we take that as a best practice and scale it to the region, because we don’t have as much visibility in Sierra Leone and Guinea,” VanRoekel told FedScoop.

But plans to improve the health infrastructure long-term are often put secondary to the harsh human realities of the disease. VanRoekel’s described the “incredible” and vivid smell of bleach every where he went, because “you have to wash with bleach water before you can enter” major buildings in the affected areas.


“It’s important to really consider that while technology plays a role, there’s a whole very human role,” he said. Take contact tracing as an example. While the technology behind it provides a powerful picture of the spread of Ebola, if people are afraid to talk about their possible exposure to it, it’s not going to work.

Still, the unprecedented crisis has called for an unprecedented response from the U.S., the former U.S. CIO said, and he thinks we’re succeeding.

“The way the U.S. government has approached this and taken on this challenge of helping Liberia and really now expanding our efforts in the other countries and expanding best practices to those places really is testing new muscle for us,” VanRoekel said. “I think we’re meeting the challenge, but we’re having to be very agile and kind of take that notion with technology.”

In October, VanRoekel delivered a
keynote address at FedTalks 2014 before his travel to Liberia. During his talk, he described his agency’s innovative role in assisting in the Ebola response.

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