Business

From MIT, crowdsourcing a response to Ebola

A business professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is applying the concept of crowdsourcing to a global public health challenge: stopping the Ebola epidemic.

Trond Undheim runs Yegii, an online network of specialists who collaborate on novel business challenges, such as how bitcoin affects the banking industry. Typically, they are commissioned by corporations. The newest undertaking has an ambitious goal, eradicating Ebola in 100 days, which Undheim said is meant to demonstrate how a network of experts can apply their intellectual “spare capacity” to difficult problems.

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Yegii has asked specialists and practioners in a wide variety of disciplines to contribute ideas, data, and analysis — focusing on both short-term fixes, such as alternatives to using hospitals for treatment, and longer-term solutions, including improved educational and prevention campaigns.

Undheim and his team expect to forward their recommendations to public health authorities, volunteer groups, and drug developers by the end of November.

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“We’re drowning in information and misinformation,” Undheim said. “It doesn’t mean that good work isn’t done by medical institutions or the UN, but we are completely under-using capacity.”

Undheim, a former executive at Oracle Corp., the database giant, has recruited several other policy experts and executives to advise Yegii’s contributors and increase the operation’s profile.

Although Yegii is in testing phase until the end of the year, companies such as National Grid, Santander Bank, and the Cambridge Web services company Akamai Technologies have already commissioned reports.

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In September, Yegii — the word is Korean for “talk” or “discussion” — put out a request for proposals on ways to stop Ebola. From an initial pool of 26 applicants, the start-up picked five contributors, including American researchers and medical personnel on the ground in Sierra Leone, to suggest short-term technical remedies and long-term strategies for countering the disease.

The team is still growing, and it is still gathering information, but it has been supplied with academic papers and proposals submitted by other Yegii users.

“It absolutely is daunting, but one of the things that’s very important in the world of humanitarian aid [is] you really have to think on your feet,” said Aubrey Stimola Ryan, a global health fellow at the St. Luke’s-Roosevelt hospitals in New York who has studied tropical medicine and was selected by Yegii to coauthor the Ebola report.

“We’re going to have to learn as we go,” she said.

The group’s work is in the early stages, but Undheim said members of the team expect to send the final recommendations to their contacts in governments, international development organizations, and groups such as Doctors Without Borders.

Other projects underway at Yegii include a report commissioned by Akamai on the expansion of the Internet and one on the future of the wind power industry, requested by National Grid. Those companies offer $5,000 and $12,500 to the experts selected by Yegii to write reports.

The Ebola challenge offers a nominal $500 reward, paid by Yegii.

Jack Newsham can be reached at jack.newsham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.
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