THE HEALTH HACKATHON on Risk Communication For West Africa

THE HEALTH HACKATHON on Risk Communication For West Africa

Goals and Desired Outcomes

The Health Hackathon on Risk Communication For West Africa is intended to explore challenges and solutions for improving risk communication across a range of different groups. This includes risk communication experts, researchers, the media, policymakers, clinicians and public audiences – including patients – in the focus countries. Participants are expected to work on a variety of health communication challenges and brainstorm a range of different types of solutions. All problems and solutions should be related to the communication or exchange of information during health emergencies.  

As teams conceive and design their ideas, outputs may include plans for developing apps, infographics and other communication materials, strategies to optimize dialogue and public understanding on health topics and numerous other outcomes. The possibilities are endless! As part of their solutions, participants should include communication strategies for dissemination to appropriate audiences  in order to maximize impact.


It is critical that the hackathon’s challenge themes are clearly understood by participants. We want individuals to readily embrace these challenges as personally or professionally relevant, and the hackathon’s format will leave ample space for individual interpretation and creativity. The three challenges reflect vetted findings from evaluating past pandemic responses, and solutions are expected to be based on the values and mission of one or more chosen themes.

The hackathon will focus on the following challenge themes, but other themes can be proposed by participants and stakeholders over the course of the week to be additional or complementary to those below.

COORDINATION – Managing Numerous or Changing Communication Issues  

Coordinating and streamlining messages from the government and possible responders during an outbreak or emergency helps to ensure and coordinate responses to issues as they arise.  

During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa  in 2014, West African communities were devastated communities , bringing to light major challenges and gaps in how risk was communicated during EVD outbreak. The challenges included difficulties in developing coordinated communication strategies that were inclusive of all key stakeholders and partners during emergencies and epidemics; the rapid transformation in communications technology including the penetration of mobile telephones; the widespread use and increasingly powerful influence of social media; coordinating ‘traditional’ media (newspapers, radio and television); and major changes in how people access and trust available health information.

Important gaps still exist in Nigeria’s preparedness for any forthcoming health emergency or epidemic. To fill this knowledge gap, understanding and implementing solutions in the context of Nigeria’s health systems and risk communication channels is timely to address risk-reduction and influencing people’s perception of risk. This was a key finding of a report published by the National Ebola Response Centre on the Ebola Outbreak (NERC) in Sierra Leone.  The NERC Report notes the way communication channels were managed at the onset of the outbreak led to mistrust and sometimes chaos. The Report recommended that areas around ‘risk communication’ in relation to a coordinated response should be prioritized to future outbreaks.

This challenge is  asking participants to harness web tools, mobile apps, big data, online and offline wireless tools and alert network websites. Tools and platforms can improve institutional risk communication delivery and outcomes, in turn,  they can enhance efforts to meet the challenges of managing numerous or changing communication issues during an outbreak.

Possible focus areas around this challenge theme include:

  • Coordination of volunteers at community level
  • Coordination of government agencies
  • Timelines, process maps and roadmaps to guide response efforts
  • Coordination of local leaders, religious leaders and traditional rulers
  • Coordination of teachers and public health professionals
  • Training for coordination
  • Simulation exercises
  • Information-sharing among ministries and agencies

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT – Communication and mobilization with communities and individuals at risk

Coordinated messaging and public information campaigns can provide timely and accurate information to stakeholders and address misinformation and rumors. Proper preparedness will involve targeted messaging to specific audiences, including healthcare providers, communities at risk and their leaders. By building trust and respect between communities and their leaders that is linked to the national response we can achieve increases in public participation and comprehension and improve engagement.

Across the region accurate and helpful messaging by national and international responders combined with the involvement of community leaders in field activities can contribute to better community participation in the fight against the EVD. By paying careful attention to getting messaging right, coordinators and responders deepen the community understanding  that is critical in addressing emergency outbreaks and engaging citizens.

When addressing this challenge theme, participants will develop information, communication technology tools and systems that can improve efficiency of how information is disseminated. Public access to trusted and verified information can be strengthened, and responders’ ability and capacity to deploy effective messaging can be enhanced. For this challenge, participant can use web tools, mobile apps, big data, online and offline wireless tools and cloud-based data sources and streams to address the above challenge.

For this challenge theme, participants can be inspired to build approaches in areas such as the following:

  • Raising awareness with seasonal campaigns on social networks.
  • Packaged communication materials prepared and distributed when necessary and addressed to specific audiences and ages
  • Messages to deal with stress during during epidemics
  • Apps to collect and address pre-existing beliefs, opinions and rumors present in society
  • Communication surveillance
  • Standardized leader messages
  • Official bulletins shared with social networks

MEDIA – media outreach, social media and new media issues

Media outreach and information dissemination is an important element of an emergency response. Approaches that are proactive instead of reactive allow for greater control of messages and help establish the credibility of responders by demonstrating transparency.

Responders need to be aware of what information is circulating and take advantage of new communication platforms to gauge public perception and disseminate information. Accurate and reliable news media reporting is also an effective way to instruct the public. However, inaccurate information or media sensationalism can add to public confusion or trigger panic; it is important that media messages are vetted and consistent to ensure public trust.

This challenge theme can be addressed when participants develop and design media strategy solutions. These could be advertising campaigns and messaging materials that are inclusive to address disparate audiences, literacy levels, locations and demographics. Videos, audios, podcasts, poster graphics and other formats may be used to educate affected communities during health emergencies. Participants can develop tech solutions that can enhance responders’ efforts in managing and establishing channels of communication and networks with local and international media. Proposed systems and mechanisms may also vet and verify reported information during health emergencies.       

Possible approaches to this challenge theme may include:

  • Message segmentation for different audiences
  • Gender-sensitive communication for women and girls in a variety of contexts
  • Identification of “fake news” or rumors in the media
  • Standardization of messages for journalist or public relations (PR) stakeholders
  • Creation a circle of PR professionals or journalists sharing vetted information
  • Media accountability and transparency via social media