UN rolls out COVID-19 communication tool in Africa

The mobile-based digital public communications platform aims to provide 600-800 million users with latest public health advice 

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Thursday 25 June 2020

Africa has decided to tap data to manage health, social and economic crisis due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. 

The Africa Communication and Information Platform for Health and Economic Action (ACIP) — a mobile-based digital public communications platform aimed to provide 600-800 million users across the continent with the latest public health advice — was launched on June 23, 2020 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) 

It is a mobile-based tool for two-way information and communication between citizens and the governments. It will also allow COVID-19 taskforces to deploy health and economic resources to mitigate the social and economic impact of the pandemic, said Vera Songwe, executive secretary, UNECA.

As on June 25, 2020, the continent reported 326,000 positive cases and more than 8,600 deaths.

The mandate of the platform was jointly agreed upon by the World Bank, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Global System for Mobile Communications and World Economic Forum in April 2020.

Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloud computing are powerful tools to tackle Africa’s most pressing challenges, including the pandemic, according to ITU.

At least 36 of the 54 African countries are already a part of the initiative..

The free-to-use service consisting of a mixture of text and voice-operated menus has been developed by the Economic Commission for Africa, in collaboration with four major mobile network operators MTN Group Ltd, Vodacom Group Limited, Airtel and Orange alongside a data integrator.

The tool furnishes national and regional COVID-19 task forces with user-generated survey data and actionable health and economic insights, thereby enabling authorities to better analyse the pandemic-related problems.

The data can thus be used to mitigate and suppress the health and economic impact of the pandemic.

By using mobile narrowband and broadband, the platform can reach 3G / smartphone users and mobile subscribers with earlier generation 2G handsets, also known as feature phones.

In fact, this is the first time a mobile USSD platform has been interactively paired with big data artificial intelligence to yield insights that neither alone could achieve, said UNECA.

This platform is touted to offer opportunity to transform the way diseases surveillance is conducted. “It will make all Africans count,” said John Nkengasong, director, Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the continent continues to face an unprecedented health and economic crisis, paying for the “internet access” from the limited resources available is even more difficult, the UNECA said.

So even as the ECA is working with key stakeholders to solve the problem of internet access, reliability and cost, the ACIP can already reach over 80 per cent of Africa’s mobile users without adding the burden of cost on them.

 “In an era of pandemic and economic crisis, it’s even more difficult for people to spend the little resources they have to pay for access,” said Songwe.

Compatible across any handset or device  

The technology can be used on any handset and on any device, according to Robert Shuter, chief executive, MTN.

“The ACIP platform presents a very simple menu to users and enables us to collect very important information that policymakers can use to identify where the issues and hotspots are,” he added.

The ministers in charge of Information and Communication Technology called upon the stakeholders to ensure that there were synergies between the ACIP and efforts were being made in the area of digital technology to combat COVID-19.

“Artificial intelligence and big data are at the heart of the ACIP and the support of telecommunication regulators from each country is absolutely needed,” said ITU’s secretary-general Houlin Zhao.

Lacina Kone, chief executive, Smart Africa, lauded UNECA for launching the digital health platform.  

“2020 should be a year when we embrace and accelerate collaboration through digital transformation. It should go down in history as a technological, health and economic turning point for Africa,” said Kone.

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