Africa: Telcos, UN Agency and Health Ministries in Africa Partner On a COVID-19 Mobile Platform

Major telecoms in Africa jointly with health ministries, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) have launched a continental public health mobile platform that will provide advice, especially on the Covid-19 pandemic.

The initiative dubbed Africa Communications Information Platform (ACIP) is based on a partnership between ECA, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), telcos and ministries of health, finance, economy, planning. Other stakeholders include the African Union, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation.

The ACIP is an information and communication tool between citizens and governments designed to gather user-generated data and statistics to provide national and regional Covid-19 task forces with health and economic insights that will enable authorities to analyse pandemic-related problems and respond appropriately.

The first phase of ACIP began on June 23 and will cover mobile users across 23 countries, representing about 80 per cent of Africa's total mobile subscribers. At least 36 African member states are part of the initiative. MTN is ECA's technical partner in this initiative that will also include Orange, Airtel, Vodafone, Vodacom, Safaricom, Ethio Telecom, and telco regulators.

CEO of MTN, Robert Shuter, said the operators would waive the charges for texts. He said the uniqueness of the ACIP initiative got MTN and its "competitors to agree that this was an area for collaboration and co-operation."

The ACIP will enable users to access locally relevant health advisories and medical advice including a symptom checker. It will employ text and voice-operated menus. It is also the first time that a mobile USSD platform has been interactively paired with big data Artificial Intelligence to yield insights which neither could achieve alone.

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 2G handsets.

Using anonymous user inputs, including survey responses, ACIP will build data dashboards and actionable insights for national and regional level policy makers. These may include identification of emerging virus hotspots and shifts in public sentiment through survey data and social listening.

International Telecommunication Union Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, called on African regulators and ICT ministers to "back the 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."

Each African country will maintain full ownership and access to its national data on the platform, while ECA will use aggregated data to facilitate regional or continental level analysis and insights into best practices.

The ACIP will allow policymakers to share insights and harness data to inform decision making at a regional and national level for the ultimate benefit of local populations. If and when the data shows emerging virus hotspots, the platform will help authorities direct medical resources to the affected areas and alert local residents.

Under phase two, to be launched in a few months, the service will broaden to include economic and humanitarian-focused communication, according to ECA. National authorities will be able to conduct community level messaging for social welfare such as facilitating cash distribution (including e-payments), send targeted information on local food distribution or clean water provision among other information. The launch of ACIP just a week after the AU launched the Africa Medical Supplies Platform to enable all African governments to access critical supplies.

- Additional reporting by Pauline Kairu

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