As I’ve continued to watch the Ebola virus take hold in Guinea, my former home, I frequently think about my role in this epidemic – how might I possibly contribute? I don’t have medical expertise, I’m no technology-guru and I’m an engineer only in my mind. Yes, I lived in Guinea for two-and-a-half years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but what impact could I really have now?
The Fighting Ebola Challenge on OpenIDEO has given me that opportunity, and it has given all of us an opportunity to use our ingenuity and ideas to help the people of West Africa.
I want to share my story with you and how I came to be part of this exciting effort:
Back in March, while walking through the Guinean market and taking census numbers for our waste management project, I noticed a man frying meat on a stick and wearing, on one foot, a very stylish 1990’s platform flip-flop – I swear it was from Old Navy. Feeling slightly puzzled but mostly intrigued (why just one?), I silently studied the man’s habits as he went about his activity: take the raw meat, dip it in the seasoned-mixture, fork it onto the stick, repeat. It wasn’t until he shifted positions to plop the meat-stick onto coals that I realized – this man had a leg-length discrepancy. He had sourced this micro-solution, a used platform flip-flop, from a second-hand market-shop to correct and enhance his mobility. How genius! How resourceful. How brilliant.
Just another day in Guinea. Ingenuity, hilarity and unintended charm—all bundled into one.
Fast forward to today, where I sit in San Francisco, typing away at this keyboard in a home situated on a well-manicured lot that has so many roses in the yard that my niece sneezes frequently when we exit. Just as I’m horrible at saying goodbyes, trying to explain where I am and what the past two-and-a-half years living and working in Guinea with the Peace Corps has amounted to is difficult for my tiny brain to even begin wrapping its mushy-like folds around. At the very least, I can say I left Guinea at the end of April with less grace than my 6-year-old uncoordinated ballet days, leaving far too much behind and, in all honesty, thinking I’d be back later this year with my projects.
At the very least, though, I can say that I left in a planned way, unlike several of my colleagues who were evacuated with a less-than-24-hour notice on July 30 due to the escalating Ebola epidemic. I can’t imagine what the evacuated Volunteers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have experienced, and my heart goes out to each and every one of them and their communities.
The good news is that we’re all looking for ways that we can continue to help the family and friends that we’ve left behind. And each day, a new way to help seems to emerge.
Three weeks ago, in the thick of my Ebola-musing state, I received an email from the Universe (or my current manager) asking me to sign on with IDEO to leverage human-centered design and their online collaborative platform, OpenIDEO, to crowd-source ideas for better equipping the care community to fight Ebola. I said yes, hoping that we might be able to develop potential solutions, together – ideas that could be funded and immediately implemented on the terrain in West Africa.
Perhaps some of you feel the same as I did – helpless in a sea of difficulty. But I’m writing to say that it’s exactly you all, those who think they might have nothing, or even something, to contribute. It’s the returned and current Peace Corps Volunteers, who possess the critical on-the-ground perspectives, local understandings, potential insights and ideas that may construct tangible solutions to fight the Ebola epidemic.
And so I call you, Peace Corps, to action, announcing OpenIDEO’s Fighting Ebola Challenge and asking you to join the conversation. We’ve been live since October 7, providing an open-source platform for innovation, collaboration, ideation and rapid prototyping to combat the Ebola epidemic.
The platform solicits research to help understand and flesh out the facts around what’s happening, and ideas to begin developing tangible solutions that might be immediately deployed and used on the terrain. Some of the best ideas may even be invited to take part in USAID’s Grand Challenge, with a potential to be funded and implemented on the ground.
Whether you submit a cultural weigh-in or post on how to leverage fashion or video technology for impact, your ideas matter. I know you all have the innovative capacity that my meat-stick market man did with his platform flip-flop back in Guinea. Take a chance and please, join the conversation today!