Civic tech community excelling in helping to handle the pandemic
As the coronavirus ravages one country after another an unprecedented rise in the number of digital solutions and innovations has emerged globally.
Researchers, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and policymakers are devisng solutions for everything from medical supply shortages to ways to lower the infection risks for front-line workers and provide alternatives for overburdened hospitals.
Policymakers, businesses and citizens are working together and have focused their energies on the existential threat facing humanity. In Mumbai rival politicians came together to provide food and shelter to thousands of migrant workers. When there was a growing shortage of ventilators, engineering students from Nigeria and India developed low-cost ventilators using locally available materials, while a professor in Italy developed open-source intensive-care units built from recycled shipping containers.
In SA, business and citizens have also come forward and are working with the government. Telkom, SA’s largest telecommunications company, began working with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) to develop a Covid-19 track-and-trace solution. Telkom used multiple data sources, including the geographic information system (GIS), to track infected people’s movements to determine who they may have exposed to the virus.
In addition, the SA National Space Agency is using image data generated by satellites to study how neighbourhoods can be dedensified, and how water can be provided to informal settlements, including using the data to gauge the distance of communities from essential services such as retail and medical facilities.
For the first time in many countries governments are directly engaging with citizens to assist them in their efforts to ease the effects of the pandemic. And for the first time on such a grand scale citizens are engaging with governments and businesses to contribute to a collective response to the pandemic.
The solutions and innovations that have emerged during the pandemic demonstrate how citizens, business and governments are using existing resources, tools, methodologies and repurposing data, information and skills to respond to the pandemic.
The citizens responsible for first detecting and responding to the virus were a community of activists, coders and hackers, so-called civic tech hactivists
Many may be aware that Taiwan’s response to the pandemic has been among the world’s most laudable: it has had fewer than 600 infections, and deaths in the single digits. The citizens responsible for first detecting and responding to the virus were a community of activists, coders and hackers, so-called civic tech hactivists. They not only used tech and data-driven insights to detect and trace the spread of the virus very early on, but ensured the availability of critical supplies.
Globally, the civic tech community felt an obligation to play a key role in fighting the pandemic: they designed mobile-enabled platforms or citizen-engagement portals that offered two-way communication between citizens and governments; apps that measured social distancing and provided critical health information; data visualisation platforms such as mapping availability of beds and medical practitioners in various hospitals and health centres; and used data and design to streamline voting lines.
President Cyril Ramaphosa was quick to recognise the importance of using technology to fight the effects of Covid. He invited a tech community in SA that developed a “vulnerability map” to work with the government. The map is helping the state in its response to the crisis using publicly available data to identify vulnerable communities.
Amid every crisis lies great opportunity, it is said. At a civic tech innovators meeting at the Wits School of Governance, Adi Eyal and Adrian Kearns from OpenUp, an SA-based open data initiative, said: “This couldn’t have been a more opportune time for the civic tech community as engagement with the government has become easier.” They observed that during the pandemic there had been an uptake in governments’ use of digital technology to engage with citizens. Open Up is working with the government to track its Covid spending.
The crisis-driven solutions and innovations that emerged, including for service delivery, are making companies and governments realise the value of digital on an almost unheard-of scale. Numerous solutions and digital innovations that have emerged during the pandemic have not only accelerated the proof of concept for service delivery but hastened the adoption of digital technologies by governments. Governments worldwide are working to scale their public services and make information and data more readily accessible to the public.
The pandemic has demonstrated that digital technology has become a de facto component in how businesses, governments and citizens engage with each other. Digitisation is the way forward for every business that wants to survive and every government that wants to improve citizen engagement and provide better service delivery.
Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke was right when he said the only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible. Only a few months ago it may have seemed an impossible task to get the government, with only a few exceptions, to directly engage with citizens and use information and data access to improve service delivery. The pandemic has fast forwarded that.
Those who do not adapt and move in the emerging space, be it business or the government, may not survive the crisis.
• Mia is a researcher at the Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN) at the Wits School of Governance.
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