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Big Data

AfricaCom Interview: Tunde Fafunwa on how the ACIP is fighting COVID-19

To overcome the socio-economic challenges magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing national efforts and collaboration between governments, public and private sector are key.

Banking the unbanked, spotting disinformation online and gathering real-time secure data in the fight against COVID-19 all require effective and innovative partnerships.

One key example is the launch of The Africa Communication and Information Platform (ACIP) for Economic and Health Action. Developed by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and launched in June 2020, the mobile platform will enhance communications surrounding COVID-19 between governments and society.

ACIP is the result of a partnership between ECA, Africa CDC, MTN, Orange, Airtel, Vodacom, WHO, Covington & Burling, ITU, Smart Africa, AUC and World Bank. The easy-to-use secure platform can conduct assessments, gather real-time anonymized data and provide analysis of COVID-19 communications and interventions. Using big data AI, the platform can explore, identify and measure trends to help in the global fight against COVID-19.

Ahead of Africa Tech Festival, Emily Parrett caught up with Tunde Fafunwa, lead advisor for the Digital Centre for Excellence at United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, to learn about ACIP.

Emily Parrett (EP): Please could you tell us about the ACIP and its role in the fight against COVID-19?

Tunde Fafunwa (TF): Certainly, ACIP was launched out of a conversation that the ECA executive secretary had with African finance ministers in April after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early discussions, in particular with MTN, looked at what could be done in collaboration with the telcos. One of the first things that came up was how important broadband is and trying to get cheaper, more accessible broadband.

Part of the reaction [from operators] was yes, this is very important, but we're overwhelmed with broadband demand. We're challenged because of COVID-19, the supply chain disruptions, and delays in getting necessary equipment. So, why don't we focus on using something that's available, and in fact, has a wider distribution than broadband, and that would be USSD, also known as short codes or feature codes.

When we thought about that – particularly when Interactive Voice Response (IVR) was added – suddenly it gave a platform that could reach every single mobile phone regardless of whether it was 2G, 3G or 4G, or whether it was a feature phone or smartphone.

Based on the commitment from the four large operators – MTN, Orange, Airtel and Vodacom – it meant this service could be deployed to all 630 million mobile phone users across the continent at no charge. The IVR mechanism meant that even people who were not comfortable or literate in reading the menu items in English or French could use the service verbally.

ACIP was launched by the President of the Republic of Congo and the President of Guinea at the end of June. We are expecting the first set of countries to roll out in October. There are a total of about 36 countries, with about a dozen of them actively scheduled for rollout over the next couple of months.

The value of the system is that it has an interactive menu, so that it can give preventative tips under option one, a short survey under option two, and a COVID symptom checker under option three. Once any personally identifiable information is removed, usage data is transmitted to a central database for analysis.

I want to emphasize that no personally identifiable information is transmitted outside of the mobile network. We're not capturing names or addresses or even mobile numbers. Mobile numbers are replaced with a random number, to keep track of the session, but not individuals. Information and data are used exclusively for non-commercial public good.

Data is uploaded into an ECA database hosted by WHO. It combines the mobile based information from the country with online, public information from a partner which is publicly available but commercially purchased. The online data comes from social media and other channels, and provides insights into what are people are publicly posting and sharing. What are they tweeting about? What are they talking about? What are the challenges they're facing? We can get insights into whatever people are sharing publicly.

We can reflect online insights in terms of updating the information on the USSD and an IVR, and making sure that we are battling the myths and providing good information. The ACIP is unique in terms of not just the cooperation among the mobile operators, which is unique and widespread, but combining that with the online information that gives a much richer set of insights for COVID-related task forces, Ministries of Health and Ministries of Economics & Planning.

EP: That's really interesting. So are those partnerships all over the continent?

TF: The basis of the activity comes from the Economic Commission for Africa and the Africa Centres for Disease Control as the anchors, with broad support from the Smart Africa Alliance, ITU, WHO and the World Bank.

It's an Africa focused program with the support of African mobile operators. We have quite a few countries where none of the "big" four mobile operators are active, but there's still a very high interest from the local mobile operators and the government. So, the total number of countries currently interested or already working is more than 36.

Each country is understandably concerned about its data, so there are controls and restrictions on what data is collected and how it is used. Again, that's secure and non-personally identifiable data. ECA and partners will analyze the data to support the countries in gaining insights and identifying best practices and emerging trends.

This is an Africa initiated and focused effort. It's based on the interest and support of the countries on the continent and the mobile operators' willingness to provide the service for free, because there is significant cost, and mobile capacity that is used. Operators are also making bulk SMS for communication free. It is this unique combination that makes the program particularly powerful.

One of the actions that have to be taken in certain countries is for the government to waive the taxes and fees associated with USSD, SMS and IVR. Even though the mobile operators are making it free to the end users, in many cases, the regulator is charging a tax or fee for every SMS sent or every call that's made, so that has to be taken out.

EP: So is that one of the biggest challenges?

TF: The ownership, management, security and privacy of data is usually conversation one, just after hearing about the benefits and confirming that the mobile operators are really offering the service for free and working together jointly. The government has to issue approvals and a single nationwide code to be used by all mobile operators.

In the case of the Congo, they took a very laudable and quite ambitious decision to have the service available in two of the national languages, Lingala and Kituba. So, doing the translations, making sure they fit within the number of characters that can be accommodated in USSD was quite a challenge.

EP: How many languages are integrated?

TF: From the operators and consortium, the commitment was to do English and French and make sure it was available on both platforms – for both the text menu system and as voice recordings – in English and French, then it's up to each country.

In the case of the Congo, the local MTN and Airtel operators took it upon themselves to say they want to make sure this is available in the national languages. So, it's really going to depend on each country and decisions taken there.

— Tunde Fafunwa will be speaking at AfricaCom 2020 taking place virtually from November 10 – 12. Take a look at the full speaker line-up for the event here.

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