Pandemics, like war, have a higher cost than their death toll. They erode infrastructures, threatening local economics and livelihoods.
One infrastructure that’s relatively hard to take down with disease, though, is the cellular phone system. Now, researchers are using it to check on the well-being of people living among the Ebola pandemic.
A poll was recently conducted by texting or “robocalling” questions to people who live in two districts of eastern Sierra Leone. This automated technique keeps researchers safe, and allows for multiple rounds of surveys to be sent out automatically over time.
“Our typical approach involves sending out roving teams of enumerators with clipboards (or handheld devices) to collect data through face-to-face personal interviews with respondents,” wrote Jean-Martin Bauer, a food analyst with the World Food Program (WFP) in an email. “The process delivers valuable detailed information, but tends to be cumbersome.”
Phone-based surveys reduce some of that burden, Bauer said, adding that the WFP can now bring in new data regularly and issue reports on the matter monthly without needing an army of enumerators.
Because cellular networks are set up in many developing countries—and landline or broadband networks are not—widespread polling is still possible in many places.