Africa

‘Africa’s COVID-19 tool will also help improve food security, livelihoods’

Information and data are important for evidence-based strategic planning to fight off COVID-19, says Oliver Chinganya, director, Africa Centre for Statistics, ECA

 
By Kiran Pandey
Published: Monday 29 June 2020

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) rolled out a mobile-based digital public communications platform to provide 600-800 million users across the continent with the latest public health advice. The tool, called Africa Communication and Information Platform (ACIP) for Health and Economic Action, is aimed at tapping data to manage health, social and economic crisis due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Oliver Chinganya, director, Africa Centre for Statistics, ECA, talks to Down to Earth on the subject. Edited excerpts:

Kiran Pandey: What prompted the UNECA to work the ACIP for Health and Economic Action? Was it inspired by any other global initiative?

Oliver Chinganya: The ECA is providing all necessary support to member states to use digitalisation as catalyst for inclusive and sustainable growth in Africa. This will contribute significantly in the attainment of the sustainable development goals (SDG).

The ECA has established a centre of excellence on digital ID, digital trade and digital economy to support member countries to fully harness its digital potential and exploit the benefits to make Africa safer, stronger and more connected.

This Centre has undertaken several national, regional initiatives such

  • Supporting member states to enhance their capacity to undertake national digital technologies readiness assessments as an instrument for harnessing technology for implementation of SDGs.
  • Designing artificial intelligence systems and platforms that can be curated to get better data and help identify and ensure that the informal sector becomes part and parcel of an active economic tissue of our continent.
  • Supporting African countries to leverage information and communications technology assisting African countries in the fight against COVID-19.

The ECA held a virtual conference with African ministers of finance on COVID-19 impact on April 1, 2020. The ministers and senior officials exchanged ideas on the efforts of their respective governments to deal with the economic and social impacts of the pandemic.

The ECA was requested to assist member states in responding to COVID-19.

KP: Why does the UNECA support Africa’s new platform for health and economic action?

OC: The SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to infect people across the continent. This has impacted the delivery capacity of public sector structure in an unprecedented manner. A subsequent economic damage will be unavoidable.

There is a need for vital information to understand and target coordinated action. There is a need to make people aware of the health, movement and work conditions and aspects during the opening up of economies.

To this end, information and actionable data are important for an evidence-based strategic planning and policy actions.

The spread and expansion of mobile telephony across the continent with more than 76 per cent subscription made it a valuable tool for reaching out to majority of population through applications that are easily usable. A majority with access to mobile phones can be reached through 2G, SMS or Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) / short codes and interactive voice response.

There is, therefore, a need to put in place a more effective two-way information and communication channel.

KP: Is this meant only for tracking COVID-19 data or can it also be used to collect data on other diseases?

OC: The ACIP for heath and economic action will not only track COVID-19 data. By helping improve national data and statistics, it will enable governments, ministries and COVID-19 task forces to better use digitally available and mobile-generated data in making decisions on health, economic livelihoods and food security.

The platform also integrates information and communication across online and mobile channels — health tips, a food and economic survey and a COVID-19 symptom checker can be accessed from one interactive menu.

KP: ACIP uses a mix of text and voice-operated menus. Is this only in English? If yes, are there plans to integrate other African languages

OC: The initial deployment is in English and French. Other languages will be added by mobile operators and partners in each country to ensure that 600-800 million mobile subscribers in Africa can access the platform.

KP: This is supposed to get user-generated data. How trustworthy will the citizen-reported data be?

The platform obtains public data from digital channels and online sources such as social media, mobile narrowband channels via USSD / short-codes and interactive voice response.

A governance structure has been established to ensure data is used for the public good on a non-commercial basis. Data is collected in accordance with national laws and regulations and based on ECA’s principles of good ID. Data is anonymised and aggregated before it is securely transmitted. It is stored in a private and secure workspace with access based on authorisation by designated entities.

Furthermore, appropriate national authorities retain control over data.

KP: Is this similar to the Aarogya Setu app developed for India. How is this programme unique?

OC: No. This is the first time a mobile USSD platform has been interactively paired with big data to yield insights that neither alone could achieve.

The platform uses a mix of text and voice operated menus, as well as big data from public sources. Machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data analytics are at the core of the platform.

The interactive mobile component works on 3G / 4G and smartphones — it works equally well on 2G, feature phones, and phones without any data or internet connection. This universality, combined with interactivity, makes this program unique.

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