UN Spearheads ‘Groundbreaking’ Mobile Tool in Pandemic Fight
An unprecedented crisis requires an unprecedented response, which is why a group of African nations are bringing together technology, data and artificial intelligence to fight the spread of COVID-19.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), in collaboration with a host of member nations and business partners on the continent, has launched the Africa Communications Information Platform (ACIP), a cellular tool that enables governments and citizens to share health information on a wide scale.
“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 UNECA, during the recent virtual announcement of ACIP’s launch.
With more than 1.3 billion people on the continent, and 36 countries participating, the program expects to reach more than 80% of mobile users in Africa. Government health ministers expect to receive a trove of user survey data to measure the effectiveness of interventions and improve deployment of health and economic resources to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
The first-of-its-kind initiative brings together each participating country’s ministries of health, economy, planning and finance; along with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC); the African Union; the World Bank; and the World Health Organization.
As of July 20, the Africa CDC reported 736,288 cases of COVID-19 and 15,418 deaths.
Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC, touted the transformative potential of ACIP in his remarks during the virtual meeting.
“This is a unique opportunity to change the way we conduct disease surveillance, enhance our ability to acquire good and timely data, and make all Africans count,” he said.
The free service works on any device and connects with text- and voice-operated menus built by UNECA jointly with many of Africa’s major telecommunications operators, including MTN Group, Vodacom, Safaricom, Airtel, Ethio Telecom and Orange.
“We as operators can waive the charges … because chances are many people battling the pandemic in some rural areas may not have air time,” said Robert Shuter, CEO of South Africa-based MTN, during the virtual event. He said this project inspired MTN and its “competitors to agree that this was an area for collaboration and cooperation.”
Shuter said ACIP “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 hot spots are.”
African ministers in charge of information and communications technology (ICT) also attended along with Houlin Zhao, the secretary-general of the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union. In a statement, he called on African telecom regulators and ICT ministers to “back the new platform.”
“Machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data are at the core of the platform,” he said. “Emerging technologies such as AI [artificial intelligence], cloud computing, 5G and many others are powerful tools to tackle Africa’s most pressing challenges, including COVID-19.
“Let us use the momentum around COVID-19 to bring digital solutions to billions, including in Africa.”