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UNC Library Student Employee Helps Create Ebola Tracking Site

Alison_vertical2Alison Blaine is a UNC Library student employee, a master’s degree student at the UNC School of Information and Library Science, and part of a UNC team helping to track Africa’s Ebola epidemic.

At Davis Library, Alison puts her research, information organization, and visualization skills to work as a Carolina Academic Library Associate in the Research Hub. The newly opened Hub provides tools and guidance for UNC researchers to help them bring powerful technologies such as GIS, visualization, and digital humanities to their work.

Alison’s role in the Ebola project was to create charts and write code that enabled the team to stream recent news articles and photos onto the website.

“Visualizing data is powerful because the impact is so much more immediate,” said Alison. “People might yawn at a spreadsheet but gasp when they see an image of the same data.”

Alison said that graphing the Ebola data revealed an epidemic beyond anything that Liberia has ever seen. “There’s just no way to miss just how quickly the disease is spreading,” she said.

UNC researchers have an opportunity to learn more about data visualization during a series of free data visualization workshops in October and November at the Research Hub.

Read more about Alison below, courtesy of the UNC School of Information and Library Science.

A team of UNC students, including School of Information and Library Science (SILS) student Alison Blaine, has joined in the fight against the Ebola epidemic by helping to create ebolainliberia.org. This site, which launched earlier this month, was commissioned by Liberia’s Ministry of Information and Communication. It seeks to provide a central location for data about the Ebola outbreak.

“The website’s purpose is to allow users to track data on the Ebola epidemic in Liberia,” Blaine said. “It charts cumulative cases and deaths, shows the number of cases on an interactive map, and provides news articles and photos about the epidemic. The primary users are Liberian government decision-makers as well as the general public.”

EbolaSPOT_375The project began when the Liberian minister of information contacted Syracuse University professor Ken Harper, who then recruited UNC professor Steven King to serve as the website’s Development Director. Blaine became involved as part of a team of UNC student volunteers.

“Having read in the news about the dire situation in Liberia and knowing that the Liberian government specifically asked for this resource, I was glad to help,” she said. “SILS encourages students to think creatively about how to address information needs in the world, and that interdisciplinary approaches are needed. The openness to ideas here at SILS influenced my decision to take a class in the School of Journalism in order to see how information needs are addressed from a journalistic perspective. This led to the opportunity for me to become involved in this project.”

Blaine’s role in the project was to create charts and write code to enable the team to stream recent news articles and photos onto the website.

“The challenge is to get the data as frequently as possible, because the number of cases is growing exponentially,” she said.

According to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in Liberia, there have been more than 2,100 confirmed cases of Ebola resulting in over 1,200 deaths in Liberia alone. There have been more than 2,000 confirmed deaths in West Africa as a whole, and thousands more are expected to contract the disease. Blaine hopes the site will eventually grow to provide a wider information base.

“While our goal was to assist in addressing a specific information need in Liberia, Ebola doesn’t respect borders,” she said. “Hopefully we will be able to extend the project to include data from neighboring countries in the near future so the website can be useful to more people.”

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