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Is the Ebola grand challenge too little, too late?

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Is the Ebola grand challenge too little, too late?

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The use of social on healthcare is undoubtedly on the rise, with a number of projects aiming to map and predict the spread of disease by monitoring social media output.  There have also been an increasing number of open innovation challenges from the healthcare industry.  We’ve seen the recent launch of the (4th) NHS Grand Challenge in England and of course the Tricorder X Prize challenge that was launched last year.

As the Ebola outbreak has gathered pace, there has been a gradually quickening sense of urgency amongst healthcare officials and policy makers in their bid to try and contain something that already appears to be running out of control.  Can the crowd help?

That’s the hope of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), who launched a $5 million contest this week that they hope will deliver some innovations in the protective suits health workers wear when treating Ebola patients.

The challenge was born due to the unsuitability of current models for working in the intense heat often found in Africa, which can often mean the suits can only be warn for 30 minutes at a time.  People can participate in one of two ways:

  1. The challenge comes with an online community of solvers and innovators that is hosted by OpenIDEO.  The aim for this community is to support collaboration, so even if you don’t have a solution yourself, you might be able to help contribute in a smaller way.
  2. Join the grand challenge itself and try and win a part of the $5 million prize fund

“Together with our international partners, we will translate the expertise and ingenuity of scientists, innovators, engineers, and students from across the globe into real solutions. With your bold thinking and engagement, we can give health workers the tools they need to win this fight,” USAID said upon the launch of the project.

With Ebola taking on an exponential like growth at the moment, time is undoubtedly of the essence, and that is my primary concern with the project.  Whilst it is probably true that a challenge style environment will shave a considerable amount of time off of the traditional invention process, is it going to be quick enough?

Whilst USAID aim to turn things around as quickly as possible, and do expressly request solutions that can be scaled rapidly, the challenge itself won’t conclude its first round for at least another month, so I’d be surprised if a solution was actually used in the field before the start of next year.

Is it fast enough, or is it a case of trying to shut the door after the horse has bolted?  I’m leaning towards the latter, and whilst it’s always great to solicit input from as far and wide as possible, I can’t help feeling this is too little, too late, especially as the Ebola outbreak has been underway now for rather a long time.

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