Facebook’s free access app to carry Ebola info

The zero-rated web access app launched by in Zambia back in July will soon be updated to carry an information service dedicated to how to spot the symptoms of Ebola and deal with them.

The Ebola app is currently being developed by the Praekelt Foundation in South Africa on behalf of Unicef. Praekelt and Unicef have already worked together on the MAMA maternal health app that’s part of the suite. is backed by Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, and offers free access via mobile phone to Facebook services as well as Wikipedia and locally relevant apps.

While Ebola isn’t currently present in Zambia, the new app will be part of the suite when it’s introduced to other countries. Without revealing details of where and when, by the end of this year, Praekelt says, there it should be available to 330 million people.

It’s well known that one of the biggest problems at the start of the current Ebola crisis in West Africa was a dire lack of reliable information. Widespread mistrust of government agencies in rural areas and an understandable desire not to let loved ones die alone in hospital combined with traditional burial ceremonies provided the disease all the chances it needed to spread.

Getting correct and trusted information out there, then, is vital to keeping Ebola in check. And while many NGOs, including the Red Cross, are already using SMS and USSD menus to disseminate health information it’s still the biggest challenge faced by agencies on the frontline.

Foundation head Gustav Praekelt spoke about the forthcoming app at the Mobile Web Africa conference in Johannesburg this morning. According to Praekelt, the app took two days to put together and “it was something we really should have done two or three months ago.”

Praekelt has been working with Facebook for some months now, as the foundation developed several apps for’s recent launch in Zambia. The company is also responsible for the vumi platform which powers Wikipedia via SMS and USSD, which allows people to search Wikipedia using SMS and USSD commands.

“Access to information is a human right,” says Praekelt, “I used to say that it’s crazy you can get Facebook for free but not maternal health information.”

Now that Praekelt is working with Facebook, he says that initiatives like are hugely beneficial. He acknowledges that it’s driven in part as a method of new user acquisition for Facebook, but says that it’s an “amazing opportunity” for people with access to the app and partners.

“It allows people to participate and grows the economy and reduces inequality and generally makes the world a better place,” he told the audience.

In South Africa, the Praekelt Foundation most recently worked with the department of health on an app called MomConnect.

“It’s the first ever universal national health initiative of its kind in Africa,” Praekelt explains. All mothers to be can register or be registered for updates from MomConnect and receive regularly updates on how to prepare for birth and what they should be doing at critical points in their pre-natal care.

It’s information usually given out by midwives overseas, but in South Africa parents-to-be rarely present to doctors’ surgeries before 20 weeks into their term, and don’t keep up – or don’t have access to – regular check-ups.

According to Praekelt, some 20 000 women have signed up in the first two weeks since launch, and there’s a target of 500 000 users by the end of the year.

The app Praekelt says he would like to see developed in South Africa is one that the Foundation helped to create for the recent Indian elections on behalf of a local NGO. Voters were able to SMS a shortcode and receive information about candidates in their area. It was accessed some five million times during the election.

“It covers name, party, outstanding criminal cases, assets, liabilities, highest level of education received,” Praekelt explains, “I would love to see information like that on some SA candidates.”

[Image – Gustav Praekelt at Mobile Web Africa]


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