Between April and June 2015 I left my job as an archivist at the Wellcome Library for two months to work at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Brussels as the Team Leader of a specially recruited team of three information professionals for their Ebola Review Project.
Throughout the Ebola epidemic MSF was heavily involved in sending medical staff to the worst affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as well as to Nigeria, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. MSF also assisted with the training and setting up of an Ebola Treatment Centre in Senegal. Treating patients in emergency scenarios makes reviewing decisions and considering alternative courses of action a fundamental activity. MSF’s Ebola Review Team, a team of external consultants, was created to do exactly that. While interviewing key decision makers was an important part of gathering information for the review, examining records created at the time was critical. This is where the Ebola Review Archive Team played an essential role.
Using standard records management systems and procedures is almost impossible when responding to life or death situations on a daily basis with staff working in numerous Ebola treatment centres and in various countries. For this reason Ebola records had not been gathered in a systematic way and it was the job of the Ebola Review Team to collect important digital records. To provide access to the material we worked with a Belgian software company and system called Knowliah.
The first step in this process was to carry out a records survey talking to people who had been in charge of decision making for the epidemic. This was one of my favourite parts of the project because it involved meeting people who had been involved in all parts of MSF’s work ranging from medical treatment to the supply of equipment and the practical requirements for water and sanitation.
The next step was to collect the digital documents that might be held on shared drives, USB sticks or in private folders. Emails were also included in the collection and formed the most complicated part of the document collection process. With the permission of each email account holder we were able to export non-private emails remotely from individuals’ email accounts, but this was a time-consuming process and involved making a selection of emails based on relevance and time period. The export then had to be migrated to an appropriate format for the Knowliah software system to deal with.
Before the documents could be made available to the Knowliah system, the archive team was tasked with creating a thesaurus or ‘content information model’, in effect a set of key terms in both English and French that could be used to tag documents and which related specifically to the context of MSF and the Ebola outbreak. This was created by carrying out workshops about key terms used and examining MSF-produced literature for terminology. One of the complications we found was that place names such as Gueckedou could have several different spellings in English and in French (for example Geckedou or Guéckédou) which would all affect searchability.
With the ‘content information model’ in place, Knowliah ran an index of the documents and emails. This allowed the keywords and tagging to be applied. The launch of the system was an exciting day for all involved in the project. Behaving similarly to a search engine, the Knowliah system allows terms to be typed in to a search box so that relevant documents can be located. Other ways of refining results include being able to see the most common ‘cluster’ of words around the original search term.
With the documents collected and the Knowliah system for providing access in place, I left MSF in June confident that the Ebola Review Team would be able to find and analyse important documents relating to MSF’s Ebola response.
Working at MSF was an excellent opportunity to find out more about their activity in Ebola affected countries and other important fieldwork happening across the world all the time. The Archive Team’s efforts collecting documents and making them available to reviewers enabled MSF to learn from past decisions and will be useful if a similar outbreak occurs in the future. Contributing archive skills to a project where lives are being saved isn’t usually the norm in the day-to-day work of an archivist and it was a privilege to be able to help in this way.