Last year, we watched anxiously along with the rest of the world as the largest Ebola outbreak in history unfolded. Our TV screens were filled with images of aid workers rushing to control the outbreak and treat the infected, primarily in West Africa. What we didn’t see was the action taking place behind the scenes by aid organizations that were tracking and collecting data on the spread of the virus in the rapidly changing environment – but one of our employees did.
National Grid’s own Jeff Pires, a Lead Analyst on our Asset, Data and Analytics team, was one of a select few professionals chosen to work with the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide Geographic Information Systems (GIS) support to map where the disease was spreading during the outbreak.
You may know Jeff from his day job working here – he’s been instrumental in helping National Grid incorporate GIS technology such as IMAP (our Integrated Mapping Applications Portal) into asset management and emergency planning initiatives. For instance, this technology now allows our mobile damage assessment teams to locate and report storm damage using iPads following major events.
Jeff was selected from dozens of applicants to help from GISCorps, a non-profit organization that coordinates volunteer-based GIS service projects in underprivileged communities.
Based at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Jeff worked closely with volunteers on the ground in Africa who relayed data back to the team. The team populated a weekly Map Journal released alongside a WHO Ebola Situation Report detailing the number of cases and where they were being found.
Jeff’s team faced numerous challenges – hand-written reports that needed to be transcribed and converted to digital records were the norm, and liaising with his team based on-the-ground in Africa proved difficult as they worked in very rural communities with limited infrastructure and geographic data. It meant working long hours and weekends as the environment shifted. The team worked feverishly, he said, to “put out fires” for information requests coming from media, partner organizations, governments, and medical and scientific communities from all across the globe. Collaborating with other organizations to obtain and share consistent, reliable information was also a major challenge, as the team grappled with multiple “sources of truth” which often conflicted with each other.
“As the mission progressed, I was amazed to find how similar the workflows and challenges were for our Ebola Response GIS Team at WHO Headquarters and a utility GIS group [National Grid] on the other side of the world,” wrote Pires, as he compared his experiences. “Tight deadlines. Incomplete, inaccurate, inaccessible, and inconsistent data. Multiple audiences – authorities, analysts, media, field workers, governments – each with their own needs, interests, and expectations on how information should be made available to them.”
National Grid granted Jeff a three-month leave to help with the international effort, and he has since returned to his role in Waltham. While it’s important to remember the Ebola epidemic is not over, he said, there have been hopeful developments like a promising vaccine.
“Prior to my departure in mid-April, our attention began shifting to sustainability,” he wrote. “As this is not the last time our world will be faced with the threat of a pandemic, we began incorporating lessons learned from the Ebola response effort into Standard Operating Procedures. We need to be better prepared for the next time.”
Jeff’s work with the international community is to be commended. It’s an example of how the talents and capabilities of our employees have an important impact on emergency response efforts– both locally and on a global scale.