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COVID-19: UNECA pitches hope on data doorway

Reliance on a strong data system will make UNECAs struggle to contain COVID-19 easier (Image source: Prachatai/Flickr)

Vinita Tiwari was present for the online launch of an ambitious data programme spearheaded by UNECA and reports on its implications for fighting coronavirus across Africa

With the number of COVID-19 cases in Africa, already crossing 26,134 at the time of writing, government bodies across the continent are trying their best to regulate the resources amid lockdown conditions.

The considerable amount of time and resources that went into Africa’s two-year-long fight with Ebola have not been forgotten by many who are keenly aware that the effect of coronavirus on African citizens can be fatal. 

But one of the biggest roadblocks to fighting the virus is the lack of proper data. To remedy this, the United Nations Economic Commission of Africa (UNECA) and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) have formed a partnership, and bring together a host of organisations from different sectors to help tackle COVID-19 through technological advancements. 

“We need data and information to tackle the pandemic and ensure that the policies, resources and technologies are deployed in the right place and right time,” said Vera Songwe, ECA Executive Secretary. 

The initiative, ‘COVID-19: Data for a resilient Africa,’ was announced online and has brought together partner organisations from different sectors, such as Dalberg, Esri, Grid3, Flowminder, Fraym, Digital Impact Alliance and National Statistics and DFID data science hub (UK), among others. Each of these organisations will ensure that the government and policymakers have the latest data available for decision-making, whether it is healthcare, food systems or economy.

Organisations such as the Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, the ASU Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation and the College of Health Solutions are joining the initiative by supplying training manuals for healthcare professionals.

“COVID-19 is a location-based pandemic, and the new normal is the technology-enhanced world, that uses technology and digitisation. Since the first case in Kenya, on March 11, we have looked at a couple of areas which could benefit from a partnership like this- for strengthening the health systems, food systems and economy, as well as helping the poor and the vulnerable,” said Philip Thigo, technical advisor on data and innovation, at the office of the Deputy President, Kenya.

GPSDD, which was established in 2015, with the intent of helping stakeholders across different countries bring about sustainable development through data revolution. It already has a presence in several African countries, as well as in some major non-African ones, such as France, Italy, Belgium, the US, the UK and Mexico, among others.

The primary task of these digitally advanced organisations and their software applications is to create data analytics, which can be analysed and visualised for better understanding, decision-making and capacity development.

Fraym uses the latest geospatial technology to access data about people. It was created by combining artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms, with survey data, remote sensing data and satellite imagery, to give information that is accurate and fast.

Flowminder, meanwhile, helps tracking the mobility patterns, which play a crucial role in determining the direction of the spread. It is helping telecommunication companies and other mobile operators to use anonymised and aggregated data, with available satellite imagery, to locate and track coronavirus cases, and their movement history. The data systems created by these organisations help in risk management, predicting socio-economic impact of the pandemic, as well as aiding the healthcare facilities in remote corners of the continent.

Citizen-generated data for symptom reporting, virus tracking, and contact tracing can be a huge help in preventing large number of contaminations. But these software applications don’t compromise on a citizen’s privacy. As Oliver Chinganya, director of Africa Centre for Statistics suggests, “Personlised data is not going to be put up in public. We will take people’s consent before sharing it.”

Other than respecting data privacy, there are other partnership principles that are to be followed by all the partners, such as determining the likelihood, impact and severity of risks; providing expertise on overcoming those risks; and laying the foundations for healthy data ecosystems.

Social media analysis, via data provided by Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram, will aim to counter panic by engaging with the public, and busting myths or fake news.

The initiative has been active for the past three weeks, and aims to utilise resources worth US$2.4mn, (in cash or kind) for duration of one year.

“While some partner organisations are providing their own resources, there are others who are providing financial help,” said Claire Melamed, GPSDD CEO.

With enough funding for an increased number of tests is still a major priority, tackling job losses and regulating childhood education, the plan seems quite optimistic. However, the question that looms large is: How can you educate those, who cannot even afford basic necessities like clean water, even if the wireless network is free?


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