The global pandemic crisis has completely altered the way people and government used to conduct themselves in their day to day routine. Most the services and activity where physical movement was considered normal has gone digital. We have experienced new tools, processes and innovations to stand up to the challenge.
European, particularly Nordic countries are very high on e-governance index. It is also true that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted European countries in unimaginable way. It therefore is very interesting to see the innovations in these countries to fight the pandemic in a digital way. The preparation to tackle rapid and widespread impact obviously was not ready. The countries worked hard to unify experts and build innovative ways to address the sudden challenge at hand. The key takeaways from studying the responses of some of the cities are underlined as under:
- Governments are working for citizens. They are their key stakeholder, so governments designed pandemic response by engaging directly with them.
- Inclusivity is important: Pandemic doesn’t differentiates, so should the response.
- Collaboration: Working with everyone only enriches the response to pandemic. Government have to take a system-aware approach but encourage local ownership.
- Sustainability: These are hard times. People have lost job & social connections, and there has been major changes in routine. Situations like these therefore call for local engagement, building job opportunities and providing stability.
“Pandemic and lock down situation has turbo-charged government innovation in digital space. Governments are making substantial investments in technology driven innovations to drive through the challenges posed during pandemic. It is however not “one and done” project, technology will constantly advance, and agencies will have to keep pace with the new normal.”
City of Paris
- Launched a local website to display information on the local support being provided to residents
- The communication campaign took assistance of influencers from minority sections, who helped adapt official message to community’s many languages and cultural codes.
- Commonly used social media platforms were used as the channels.
- Video presenting scientific explanations were flooded on community focused channels (magazines/ websites).
- Open Data support to address people’s need
Today phones are almost with everyone. In Paris, almost 80% of homeless people have phone. Thus mobile phones became an important communication tool. Platforms therefore were set up to give necessary information on resources, precautions, basic necessities and medical assistance.
The digital divide however still exists. So, a mix of physical and digital channels were used in providing the necessary services. For example Athens created a municipal radio station to broadcast continuous information and preventative messages in eight languages. Slovakia commissioned cartoonist to visually present the messages. Norway set up weekly online meeting with NGO to ponder over successful implementation of social distancing measures.
Citizen Engagement initiatives in Barcelona
The City set up a platform for young people to ask question. The questions are directly responded by Mayor. A dedicated WhatsApp channel was set up to share concerns on COVID-19, and get information. A website for engaging senior citizens of country has been setup where seniors not only can share with their family members but also find other seniors on website and make friends. A dedicated healthcare channel and spiritual channel were also made part of this platform.
Cooperation and Collaboration
Local governments across northern and eastern Europe ran hackathons to solve complex problem that arose out of pandemic and lockdown situations. Hackathons allowed cross-collaboration while doing away with unnecessary hierarchies. The outcome of hackathons were that a large number of tech solutions were rapidly developed. Some of these outcomes are listed under:
- All-in-one information system for connecting manufacturers of medical supplies with hospitals and charities
- Cloud based platform to allow notaries to work remotely with their clients and manage document workflow.
- Dashboard to monitor the spread of coronavirus in country
- An app to connect self-isolated individuals, who are seeking help to volunteers
- An easy-to-build artificial respiratory equipment to treat COVID-19 complications
- An application for local businesses to share vouchers for services and products with their customers
- A device to find out how many people are waiting in queue at grocery store.
- A platform to fight rumors surrounding coronavirus.
- A platform to connect medical staff to individuals to seek healp anonymously.
Summarizing the lessons that may be drawn from European cities: Innovation flourishes where –
- Agencies having the information have decision making rights
- Multi-disciplinary teams working in a flat structure are encouraged.
- Optimize the system for learning. The greater learnability and experience is reflected in the quality of responses.
- Give voice to marginalized sections to build diversity and inclusivity in response.
Innovations were not limited to Europe only. Many such initiatives across the world have been compiled in UN’s report “Compendium of Digital Government Initiatives in response to the Covid-19 Pandemic 2020”. These initiatives are clubbed by type as under:
While there are many digital platforms for sharing information such as social media, websites or chatbots, there is also wave of misinformation, hoaxes and wrong data or rumors. To counter fake news, Ministry of Health in Brazil implemented SMS service. Similarly France and Kuwait implemented chatbot apps to disseminate information and latest updates. Other initiatives include implementation of monitoring portal for publishing current state of Covid19 in the state.
To help the vulnerable groups, private companies, social entrepreneurs, tech-preneurs and civil society organizations have come together. Public civil engagement platforms have focused on donation and volunteering to extend help to the weaker sections. Information regarding donation or volunteering were published widely on various fintech platforms and government website and other prominent sites. Many innovations such as “Be a Volunteer” of Serbia or “Move to Donate” initiative of Saudi Arabia were implemented across various countries.
If there is one sector which came under tremendous pressure during pandemic times, it was Health. The use cases can be clubbed into any of the following categories –
- e-health services: In Croatia, the digital assistant “Andrija” uses artificial intelligence to process thousands of health requests via a government portal and social media.
- Supply of medical goods such as South Korea’s MyMask or Saudi Arabia’s Tamini App
- Virtual doctor such as Brazil’s Coronazap or Monaco’s Medical teleconsultation
- Self-assessment of health status such as Estonia’s Koroonatest
- Remote patient monitoring such as Oman’s Tassud Plus App
MSME have been affected very badly because of lockdown situation. Some of the initiatives taken are as under:
- Colombia launched a program for small & medium sized businesses, and independent professionals to create their online presence.
- EnSuCasa platform of Cuba allows the options to people to find out groceries options closest to their homes.
- E-commerce directory provided an easy way for people in Qatar to reach their favorite shop or services online.
- Singapore’s go business portal to apply for exemptions from mandatory filings, additional manpower or registration of essential workers in view of lockdown.
- Novissi is a digital cash transfer program in Togo for informal workers whose daily revenue has been effected to receive cash transfer from state.
As the pandemic spread, the biggest challenge for government was to trace the spread and contain it. Countries such as Bhutan and Malaysia used QR code based mobile applications to trace people movement. The QR code serves as digital authorization permit for travel. Some countries such as India used Bluetooth based COVID trackers, which alerts users about the proximity of an infected person, offers mapping of likely hotspot and disseminate all relevant information.
Social Distancing and Virus tracking
Many countries used robots, drones, temperature scanners and infrared thermometers to maintain social distancing. Tunduk app of Kyrgyzstan allows citizens to apply for food assistance. Qatar launched drones in several areas that through announcements by loudspeakers spread awareness about Coronavirus. Singapore’s GovTech developed SPOTON – an AI powered thermal scanner, and uses long wave infrared rays to screen temperature. The scanner is being deployed in government buildings.
Working and Learning from Home
The lockdown situation has posed severe challenges to children education and precarious situation for working people. Government and many technology companies have risen to occasion by publishing and delivering content over electronic channels. For example Fiji and Colombia have created educational program which can be streamed on national television for students. There is a tremendous rise in adoption rate of infrastructure that enables remote work such as VPN and MOOCs.
Austria launched a centralized learning platform called Eduthek. The distance learning platform supports teachers in providing online seminars and videos. Students can also access digital schoolbooks and also apply for devices to support distance learning.
Governments across the world suddenly came face to face with challenges such as data privacy, cyber frauds and digital divide during Covid19 pandemic. This may also be looked in some positive light as many governments answered some of these essential questions in innovative ways.
France: the civil society organization MedNum, with the support of the Secretariat for Digital Affairs, launched solidaritenumerique.fr, a platform which helps people who have difficulties with accessing digital tools during the crisis. It offers a variety of digital inclusion resources (tutorials, useful websites, etc.), as well as a free of charge number to get advice from volunteering digital mediators.
There were many public-private partnership initiatives taken up by governments in implementation of platform and applications to ensure convenience to citizens. Colombian government partnered with Coursera to provide access to online learning for unemployed people. Estonia in collaboration with software company Heisi launched a National Public patient portal. The portal allows patients to decide themselves when they need to take leave to manage burden on doctors and nurses. The Ministry of Health & Wellness of Mauritius partnered with Huawei to bring video conferencing solutions to facilitate communications between all hospitals and ministry.