Storytelling to change the ending of the ebola story

Following the present course, prospects for containing ebola are dim. Yesterday CDC predicted over 1.4 million ebola cases by the end of January 2015 unless something changes. The lag adjusted estimates of ebola’s fatality rate show that over 80% of people die, and this epidemic continues to grow exponentially.

This epidemic is growing because the standard approach – quarantining the area – doesn’t work where corruption is high (powerful people don’t obey the quarantine if they believe they can get better treatment by fleeing) and the ability to isolated infected people is low.

More importantly – if the public sees that 90% of the people who go into a hospital come out in a body bag they are not going to visit hospitals anymore.

Under these circumstances, some other approach may work where quarantines and hospital triage cannot. Last week Sierra Leone tried a three-day lockdown. This may be a test-run at a permanent curfew to prevent people touching each other.

But whatever the solution may be, I know it won’t be apparent without some people listening to citizens, gathering feedback and opinions, and aggregating it into data mining tools – exactly what we at GlobalGiving have done elsewhere.


I wrote to some friends who know people in Liberia and Sierra Leone. I have a dozen prospective volunteers to start a “Ebola Listening Brigade.” This is a Public Facebook Group For people in Liberia who are willing to interview a citizen for a “day in my life” story during the ebola epidemic. Life is changing rapidly there. These stories will help others understand the need and nature of the crisis beyond the narrow lense of the media.

Ebola Listening Brigade

Five minutes of listening a day

The goal is to keep the commitment low – 5 minutes a day – and simple, using technology. Here’s how stories will get aggregated and disseminated as they come in:

Step 1 – a listener approaches some person they know in Liberia and asks a question like, “What was your yesterday like? how did the ebola outbreak affect you?”

That person talks for at most 3 minutes. Their response is saved in a simple android app. Dictadroid seems to be simple and free. iTalk recorder for iPhone seems to work too.


Using a smart phone with the dictadroid app and internet access, they email it to me.

Step 2 – I take the WAV file they emailed and get it transcribed. Then the text appears at and becomes part of the story archive.

Step 3 – We keep collecting and sharing this so that others can use it as they think about the next approach to containment. If we can predict that what works for hundreds of patients doesn’t scale to a million, now is the time to explore plan B.

I’m happy to say that we already have a few people interested in contributing. The technology isn’t the barrier – it’s finding the time and keeping the process simple, while at the same time unleashing the power of narratives to reveal something deeper.

Narratives may seem unstructured, but they are quite structured. They are time-bound bits of information, pre-organized into a series chronological events. They include emotional perceptions and point of view markers in the pattern of pronouns. And they encode first-hand accounts with more that can reveal than a summary. So that’s why I’m trying to get more of them.

Nightly I scanned every wordpress blog on the net tagged #ebola and found that less than one in ten had even so much as a quote from a person in the affected area. The other 91% was just opining by outsiders. These opinions cannot reveal a solution, only first-hand accounts can.

One thought on “Storytelling to change the ending of the ebola story

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s