Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) continues to spread in South Korea. The number of fatalities stands at 27 of a total 179 MERS diagnoses, with more than 3,000 people currently under MERS quarantine.

But medical officials aren’t the only ones fighting back, a series of CEOs from Korean startups stepped up and produced a crowdsourced map that tracks the virus and affected hospitals. After immediately going viral, it was just seven days before the service was adopted by the government.

“There were so many rumors around MERS, yet we couldn’t get accurate information on it, making us more anxious about the situation. So I thought of making a map that gathers accurate information on it, so I can confirm the facts with people around me.” MERSmap developer Soonyeung Park said in an exclusive interview with TechNode.

It started as a small project. DataSquare CEO Soonyeung Park and LikeLion CEO Duhee Lee created a website MERSmap where they can collect MERS information. They introduced the website via Facebook on June 3rd, when rumors about MERS were prevalent (Korean Source). The contributors to the platform were team members of DataSquare, a mobile application service and LikeLion, the free coding education startup. 

The simple map website provides information on hospitals with MERS infections and resources through crowdsourced information from the visitors and patients. If the information is thought to be false, Facebook logged visitors could report that it’s likely to be a rumor. When five votes are logged as ‘rumors’, then the information gets erased automatically by the platform’s algorithm.

Scared of the virus, but unsure how to avoid it, Koreans found the website useful and it went viral immediately. “The server shut down when 100,000 people visited the website, so we had to restructure it,” MERSmap developer Duhee Lee said. “We thought it had settled down, but then the website became a top search keyword on the portal the next day, which brought about five million visits that single day.”

The server cost to embrace all the traffic was too high for the team to afford it on their own, so they decided to put up advertisements to cover the server cost. “If we had intended to make money out of it, we would have put on advertisements from day one.” Lee laughed.

The makers of the not-for profit service have become unofficial heroes in South Korea’s web community, however they claim they had no idea the site would reach such adoption levels.

“We didn’t start off with the intention of doing anything heroic. We just developed the website and as we operated it, there were huge participation from the citizens, which we didn’t expect at all,” Park noted.

Government Takes The Role

After all the buzz, Park announced the closure of the website as it transferred its function to the Korean government (Korean Source). For seven days that this website operated, the makers of the website announced that it covered approximately 340 cases of MERS and about five million unique visitors had visited it.

“We didn’t intend to fill in for the role of government, it was just a service that citizens really needed and wanted, where we received a great support from them. We can look on the bright side, that government posed to show changes later on,” Park stated.

Currently, the Korean government offers real-time information about MERS on its Twitter account @mersKRnow receiving the updates from 60 local government’s twitter accounts. The citizens can follow the local government Twitter accounts that correspond to their residential area.

“At the start of June, people had their eyes on other people when they coughed. However, nowadays, less people wear masks, and are less anxious about the virus when they chat. Probably, it’s due to information now all opened and MERS slowed its pace to spread out,” Park said. “We all hope that the MERS spread calms down.” Lee added.

Other Projects From the MERSmap Makers 

Makers of the MERSmap have run not-for-profit services in the past, including student focussed applications.

After they handed off the MERSmap service, Lee disclosed all the making process of on his Facebook. “We used Nginx, Unicorn for web server, and used Ruby… It’s all part of what LikeLion teaches to our students,” Lee said.

LikeLion started by Seoul National Universtiy graduates including Lee, is a 12-week long ‘free’ coding class for non-tech major University students. The class equips them with technical toolsets, hoping to create more cross-discipline tech professionals.

After running the third semester last summer, LikeLion went viral and became a must-do for Korean University students, making the selection process tougher every year.

The main contributor of MERSmap, Park, hails from DataSquare, a mobile application service startup that provides corporate solution development and web services for companies. Its app service Solve Unlock is widely used by high school students to memorize English words while unlocking the smartphone screen. According to Park, the team is close-beta testing a big data based customized search service that recommends goods and its discounted offers.

Image Credit: Mersmap

Eva Yoo

Eva Yoo is Shanghai-based tech writer. Reach her at evayoo@technode.com

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