Ebola-Proof Tablet Developed By Google Set For Deployment In Sierra Leone

Decidedly in the "Don't be Evil" column (and giving all new meaning to the term "hot hardware"), Google has developed a tablet device for use by workers battling Ebola in Sierra Leone. The Sony Xperia tablet comes with an extra protective shell, can withstand chlorine dousing as well as exposure to the high humidity and storms that are typical of life in West Africa. And it can even be used by workers wearing protective gloves.

Credit: Médecins Sans Frontières             

The virulent nature of Ebola, which is passed on via close contact with infected bodily fluids, requires that patients of the disease be cared for by personnel fully encased in protective hazmat suits, complete with goggles and wearing multiple layers of gloves.

As even a single piece of paper leaving a high-risk zone poses a risk of passing on the infection, at the end of their shifts Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) doctors on site at the height of the current outbreak of the disease were reduced to shouting patient notes to workers on the other side of a protective zone fence, who would then enter them into patient records. A practice that MSF technology advisor Ivan Gayton says was "error prone, exhausting, and it wasted five or 10 minutes of the hour medics can spend fully dressed inside the protective zone before they collapse from heat exhaustion."

To address the issue, MSF challenged a number of technology volunteers to create an “Ebola-proof tablet” to improve efficiency. This collective, which included Whitespell's Pim de Witte and Hack4Good's Daniel Cunningham, grew to include a member of Google's Crisis Response Team, and it was this group that developed the device.

The Android tablet, which is encased in polycarbonate with "industrial level" waterproofing and all sharp edges removed, can be dipped in a 0.5% chlorine solution (which kills Ebola, and which if used with unprotected hands can cause chemical burns) and removed from the treatment zone. It is placed on a table to charge, quickly and wirelessly, and can transmit data to servers on the outside of the zone. This last aspect of the tablet may not seem the least bit impressive to Westerners, but is nonetheless considering the limited state of Internet access and infrastructure in the West Africa region. To illustrate, the server that receives the transmissions from the tablets — which is about the size of a postage stamp — runs on lithiumion batteries now, but during testing had to be connected to a motorcycle battery for its power. 


Dr. Eric D. Perakslis, part of the department of biomedical informatics at the Harvard Medical School, told Wired that he is working to help MSF “open source” the new technology in the hope that can be deployed to help in the fight against other diseases, such as cholera. “You can think of other highly toxic environments, even laboratory environments, where this could really be helpful,” Perakslis says.

Approached as open source the technology could open doors to other new technologies and lead to new avenues of solution for battling disease and illness as well, as under such a classification it can not only be used freely but also modified as needed. In fact, this is precisely what MSF and Google did in creating their Ebola information system, developing the software that runs on the tablet and server by building atop OpenMRS, an existing open source medical records tool.

The MSF's Ivan Gayton believes that the collaborative almost ad-hoc method that came into play in the quick development of Ebola-Proof tablet is indicative of how organizations such as MSF should operate going forward. “We’ve learned new ways of doing things,” he says. “In the past, we used the Roman-legion, hierarchical, triangle structure. But Google and the tech volunteers we work with organize in different ways — ways more like what you see with open source projects like Linux, with more or less one manager and then a bunch of equal peers. That can have profound implications for the humanitarian field.”