ICT and Ebola

At the UN Broadband Commission meeting in New York, we had a separate session on the Ebola crisis.

The key question was: what can our industry do? One of the members of the Commission reported on their initiative to use the 15 mobile operators in the regions affected by the virus to cooperate in getting consistent messages out to the people in affected areas, and to use the data of the mobile network in whatever way possible to assist the effort to stop and control the disease.

Obviously those messages should come from an organisation such as the WHO.

Last year I also reported on the initiative supported by the Commission in 2013 to get one million smartphones into the hands of community workers in the Sub-Saharan countries. It was argued that if this initiative had been in place there would have been a much better chance of attacking the problem. Thanks to the support of several members of the Broadband Commission (and many others) the basics of this project are now in place; such as mobile coverage plans and the availability of $20 smartphones.

However the report back on both of these regional mobile networks and smartphone initiatives at the meeting was that there are significant problems in actually getting the support of the governments involved. In many cases these issues involve ministers and departments who have little understanding of what technology can do, corruption is another major problem. In general the countries revert to tools and solutions that have been applied (and often failed) in the past and require the ‘involvement’ from local officials Furthermore, there is still an enormous amount of silo thinking and silo protection taking place within governments (and this is certainly not restricted to governments in developing countries). While the ministers and departments of communications might be better informed, they are often blocked in implementing ICT-based solutions because it is not part of their portfolio – they are often not given the opportunity for any involvement in healthcare, education and other ministerial portfolios.

This has been a very frustrating situation for those who do believe that ICT can play a key role in helping to manage this horrifying outbreak.

In relation to the regional (Ebola) mobile initiative, one problem is that what these operators want to do involves cross-border communication and their licence agreements don’t allow them to do so. They have suggested that the governments involved sign a waiver that would allow these operators to provide the services. This seems to be a difficult issue and the Broadband Commission has promised to use its UN connections to see what can be done about it.

The other broader problem encountered by many people and organisations involved in Ebola Aid is a lack of regional coordination. There is not one single regional contact point for those who offer assistance and this makes the effectiveness of the aid projects very difficult.

My contribution to the discussion was a suggestion that what we perhaps could do is learn from big sporting events, where the ICT industry is able to establish great infrastructure and data services that produce the most in-depth analyses of activities, scores and other game activities.  The combined ICT industry could develop a basic ‘disaster-solutions-in-a-box platform’ that can be used in situations like pandemics, earthquakes, super storms, tsunamis, etc. ‘Thanks to climate change’ we have built up significant knowledge over the last decade and we should be able to learn from this and have at least a basic ICT platform in place, ready for when the next disaster strikes. Obviously each disaster is unique, but at a basic level we can supply a launching platform.

At the same time we, as the ICT industry, need to put far more effort into getting our message of the social and economic benefits of ICT past the technology-literate people within governments and begin to directly involve the ministers and departments of health, education and so. Unless governments start to develop policies that include a far more strategic use of ICT we will continuously come across this level of technology ignorance and apathy. Once again, this issue applies to governments in developed, as well as in developing, countries.

Paul Budde

See also:

Global – Infrastructure – The Broadband Commission for Digital Development

Global – BuddeComms International Broadband and Trans-sector Activities

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