Tackling disease with data and design: Observations from my IBM Health Corps experience

Last January I worked alongside a team of fellow IBMers to reimagine how Panamá fights back against infectious diseases like Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya. We were a team of experts deployed via IBM Health Corps — part of IBM’s moonshot in healthcare — and designed specifically to make sure everyone has access to technology that can make our communities healthier and safer. This pro bono program sends IBM professionals on-site to understand the needs of the people at the core of a complex health problem, and strategically help advance their ability to manage their challenges using technology and design.

I sat down with Mic.com to talk a little bit about my experience as part of their collection of stories of tech and data helping solve global problems. A short video is now live at https://mic.com/ibm/empowered.

I wrote a lot about this work in a previous Medium post. Looking back, I had three key observations about this project:

1. Working with a highly focused team on a very ambitious goal

Our IBM epidemiologist provided her expertise helping the team understand the various scenarios in which mosquito-borne disease spreads throughout the population. It’s all a matter of time, data and strategy. Data powers how public health officials allocate resources and strategically target areas at risk. When this fails to happen, even though its data that fails, the humans at the forefront, the vector technicians, feel the hit the most. They fear getting to impacted communities too late. Empathizing with them led us to create a system that helped empower them to be more closely tied to the decision makers, so they could collaborate to intervene before communities were affected. The stakes were high, but as a team we were highly invested in being able to make a difference.

2. Technology should be user-centered from the ground up

Design thinking exercises were constantly influencing how the back-end technology for our vector control system was written. The end result was a service that is fully reflective of the mental model currently employed to capture vector control data. As a designer, I had only ever worked with established technologies, so being able to influence such a foundational piece of the system was probably my favorite part of the project. The experience was design-driven in the most foundational sense, which is to say that no single piece of the vector-borne disease surveillance system was created in isolation. Each piece was built with the various user groups in mind (the vector technicians, epidemiologists, and healthy policy makers) and how they related to each other.

3. Creating together

Being on-site for three weeks meant that we developed close relationships both within the team and with our clients. This made each of us personally vested in the outcome of the project. By supporting each other and maintaining transparent channels of communication, we became great friends and collaborators while creating something we were all proud of.

Other reads:

How we designed tools to combat Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya

Why IBM sends its best employees abroad for four weeks

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