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Will COVID-19 accelerate digital transformation? 5 ways the development community can “build back better”

By Kate Wilson, CEO of the Digital Impact Alliance and Skye Gilbert, Executive Director of Digital Square, PATH

Jun 3, 2020

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Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki. Marie-Reine Rutagwera, a malaria surveillance specialist for PATH, and Monde Mathews, an environmental health officer in Zambia, review malaria surveillance data on a laptop computer.

This post first appeared on the Digital Square website.

As the global response to COVID-19 accelerates, thoughtful leaders in every sector are asking: how can we structure our response to not only respond to the needs of today, but to ‘build back better’ once the crisis is over?

The digital sector needs to do the same.

Back in 2014, at the height of the Ebola crisis, development groups faced real challenges coordinating global and local response efforts to combat the disease. During that time, they struggled to access new data sources that could forecast where people were moving, in order to provide medical supplies and treat the sick. Government and NGO responders found themselves in lengthy negotiations, one-by-one, with mobile network operators trying to set up simple health messages that could help people recognize symptoms or let people know where to get treated.

In the intervening years, the efforts we respectively lead – the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) and Digital Square – were formed to address the digital challenges exposed by the Ebola crisis. Our collective mandate is to foster digital cooperation across public and private sectors, and to facilitate the flow of actionable information across systems so that the people who need it have it, at the time they need it most.

As the development community grapples both globally and country-by-country with the impacts of COVID-19, it’s heartening to see that better preparation based on lessons learned is indeed paying off. Alongside partners in Malawi, DIAL recently completed a project that safely used mobile network operator (MNO) data to help the country’s Ministry of Heath further its plans to place health centers closer to its citizens. And Digital Square has supported interoperability between software products that support health systems in over 70 countries. This interoperability facilitates information flows, for example helping medical professionals use clinical data to forecast demand for vaccines and reducing stockouts by up to 70%. These sorts of successes are showing first-hand the power of technology and partnership models to improve health and make a difference in people’s lives.

Our efforts demonstrate what is possible, but we haven’t yet reached the scale necessary to fully address inequalities in access to technology. And there’s another danger: If we fail to use this opportunity to close the digital divide, COVID-19 will drive an increase in worldwide inequality.

The digital ‘haves’—the 50% of the world that can access Internet – will receive real-time updates from their governments on the health status of their communities, information about the virus, and where to receive essential medical services, as is happening now in South Korea and Rwanda. The digital ‘have-nots’ – the other 50% of the world – will be unable to access up-to-date, accurate information on how to protect themselves, nor where they can go to receive essential medical or other services.

As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, it is clarifying both our progress as a community, as well as just how far we still must go to close the digital divide. Here are the five key things our community needs to do now to close the gap:

Governments must accelerate their digital transformation agendas.

Many governments already have intentions to better align systems, but those plans have not yet been implemented or fully funded. COVID-19 can be the impetus to minimize interruptions in essential services, and risks to economic growth, by funding broadband infrastructure and fostering a digital ecosystem that encourages local innovation. By rapidly establishing appropriate governing bodies to oversee digitalization, crafting a digital transformation strategy, and partnering with financiers as needed, leaders might offset economic contractions, provide students with access to education, serve community health needs via telemedicine, and increase food security through digitally informed supply chains.

Existing and emerging examples from around the world offer instructive models and lessons. Estonia’s citizens are already benefiting from a wide range of e-government services. India’s ten-year journey building IndiaStack offers a promising example of how digital ID, financial services and data protection can come together. Newer examples from Niger and The Democratic Republic of Congo, are starting their journeys, building partnerships with DIAL, Digital Square, GSMA, ITU, PATH, UNICEF, the World Bank and the World Health Organization to advance their digital strategies.

Agencies and implementers should adhere to the principles and guidelines we committed to before the pandemic.

The Principles for Digital Development, which aim to outline best digital practices and have been endorsed by 216 global organizations, include reusing and improving existing platforms; designing with the user; and data privacy and protection. Many organizations have implemented their own responsible data guidelines and systems and invested in digital expertise within their teams. UN leaders have recently called for the global ceasefire to extend to cyber-attacks, and for responses to protect human rights. It is critical that responses to the pandemic respect rights to privacy in the short term, and do not set up invasive surveillance powers that would lead to human rights infringements in the longer term, particularly for vulnerable groups.

Funders need to coordinate resources available for digital transformation.

Our current piece-meal approach to funding digital solutions is not working to increase digital equality. Investing community by community, country by country, sector by sector will not bring the Internet to 50% of the world, nor will it enable neglected communities to act with the agency they need to turn the tide of the pandemic. Many of the digitally invisible are currently unprofitable to reach, so waiting for private sector engagement to fund broadband connectivity to rural communities or invest in digital health tools for remote populations is not a viable strategy. Centralizing digital transformation resources would redefine profit margins and bring new partners to the table as investment partners. This model works for medical commodities; it can work for digital technologies as well.

Multinational organizations and country governments need to invest in fewer, more affordable, scalable and appropriate digital platforms.

We can no longer afford to ignore the value of aligning around an evidence-driven vetting process governed not just by the funders of digital platforms, but also by the people using them. Centralized resources must be governed by a diverse group that brings technical rigor, a radical user-centric focus, business sense and transparency to a vetting process. DIAL, Digital Square and the Digital Public Goods Alliance are working together to develop this community driven framework for the evaluation of digital platforms.

All development stakeholders should include civil society organizations in shaping digital transformation agendas, recognizing that citizen engagement is crucial for response efforts and data protection.

The individuals that make up communities are the first responders to COVID-19. They are the first to know if essential services have been disrupted, track disease spread, and provide real-time information regarding local barriers to digital access. Past health crises around the world – like influenza outbreaks – have demonstrated that information directly from communities can be used to dramatically improve the time and effectiveness of the outbreak response but concerns by citizens about data misuse can prevent them fully engaging. The Principles for Digital Development place a central emphasis on putting people first. All stakeholders must work to put this principle into practice.

Let’s take the opportunity this current global health crisis has provided us to recommit to closing the digital divide and accelerate the political momentum of the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. Together, we can invest in digital transformation that ensures a more equitable future for everyone.

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