African countries have rolled out a groundbreaking mobile-based public communications platform that takes advantage of big data analytics to provide more than 600 million mobile phone users and governments across the continent with the latest public health information regarding the Covid-19 disease.
Dubbed The Africa Communications Information Platform (ACIP), the initiative is a two-way information and communication tool between citizens and governments designed to gather user-generated survey data and statistics to furnish national and regional Covid-19 task forces with actionable health and economic insights that will enable authorities to better analyze pandemic-related problems and implement appropriate responses.
The initiative devised by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in collaboration with Africa’s major mobile network operators on the continent including MTN, Vodacom, Safaricom, Airtel, Ethio Telecom and Orange, ITU and regulators, as well as other stakeholders to support each country’s National Covid-19 Taskforce was launched two weeks ago.
At least 36 African member states are already part of the initiative including States within the East African community.
The platform will for the first time, bring together the telcos and ministries of Health, Finance, Economy, Planning, as well as international development organizations, including Africa CDC for a steady supply of live, smart data & information and analysis for fast decision-making about the fast evolving disease and related situations. Other stakeholders include the African Union, the World Bank and the World Health Organization.
“Such information and analysis will include surveys to measure public health interventions, physical distancing adherence and socio-economic effects of Covid-19 response, especially mitigation measures.
The platform will serve as a crucial tool to allocate resources and implement responses and actions to mitigate and suppress the health and economic impact of Covid-19 in Africa,” said a statement from the ECA.
“With this platform, we have the possibility of reaching between 600 million and 800 million mobile subscribers in Africa,” said Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), during the virtual launch of the Africa Communication and Information Platform for Health and Economic Action (ACIP) on June 23.
The launch was presided over by President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo who lauded the initiative and noted that it “responds to member states' requests for assistance in collecting and processing essential data to respond effectively to COVID-19”.
The launch was attended by African ministers in charge of ICT.
ITU’s Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, called on African regulators and ICT ministers to “back this new platform.” He said artificial intelligence and big data are at the heart of the ACIP and that the support of telecommunication regulators from each country is “absolutely necessary.”
President Alpha Condé of Guinea pledged to “make sure that all 55 AU member states are part of this initiative (ACIP).” He said the uncertainties around COVID-19 make a strong case for Africa to speedily embrace the fourth industrial revolution, ensuring better internet access and affordability.
Anticipated to cover over 80 percent of Africa’s mobile phone users, the programme is also expected to improve Covid-19 task forces’ means of deploying health and economic resources to mitigate the pandemic’s impact.
The platform aims to support each country’s assigned National Covid-19 Taskforce to enhance its ability to analyze the situation and implement the necessary responses, and to direct resources to mitigate and suppress the health and economic impact of the global pandemic. But ACIP citizenry users will also be able to access locally relevant health advisories and medical advice including updates on symptom checker.
Robust and easy to use
Using a mixture of text and voice-operated menus, the free to use service was developed by the ECA in collaboration with some four major mobile network operators and a data integrator from within the continent.
The platform harnesses mobile narrowband channels using a combination of text (USSD) and voice interactions (IVR). On the broadband side, the platform uses public data from digital channels, including online and social media.
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.
Ms Songwe criticized the state and high cost of Internet access in Africa. “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,” she noted.
But urged Africa’s youth to get involved in 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 fibre of the continent.”
CEO of MTN, Robert Shuter, said operators, would waive the charges for USSD given that many people battling the pandemic may not have airtime. He said the uniqueness of the ACIP initiative got MTN and its “competitors to agree that this was an area for collaboration and cooperation.”