ICT, innovation the heroes in pandemic fight

ICT, innovation the heroes in pandemic fight

Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) have been the foundation and the ‘glue’ behind the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, and will continue to underpin emergency health response in future.

This is according to Professor Darelle van Greunen of the Nelson Mandela University Centre for Community Technologies (CCT), who was addressing a webinar hosted by the Eastern Cape Chapter of the Institute for Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) last month.

Van Greunen said that while much of the world’s focus had been on healthcare and data relating to the pandemic, ICTs had been enabling global efforts to diagnose and treat patients, track and control the spread of the disease, coordinate response, and keep communities reliably informed. “People tend to forget the ‘mighty’ ICT behind these efforts,” she said. “But IT has, and will continue to play a compelling role in how we deal with health crises going forward.”

She said the ICTs that had been deployed to combat Covid-19 and its impacts ranged from remote health monitoring, autonomous disinfection, contactless temperature guns, virtual doctor visits and chatbots, through to mobile apps, hospital robots, drones, streaming services and remote working tools. Advanced ICTs would also be crucial in helping business and industry recover from the fallouts of the pandemic and the lockdown, she said.

“I don’t think the way we work will ever be the same again – it will be the ‘new different’, not the ‘new normal’. So it is time for some introspection on our new way of doing things, and the role of ICTs in this,” she said.

Van Greunen noted that a myriad new mobile apps had been developed in response to the pandemic outbreak, and scores of existing technologies had been adapted to support tracking, symptom detection and treatment. “In the past month alone, 151 new apps were put into the Google Play store to support tracking and wellness. Maybe it’s time to look at more innovation in our apps and not just produce one for the sake of it,” she said.

In addition, not all of these new apps and technologies were appropriate for the South African context, she said. “For example, advanced Rokid AR/MR glasses that have been adapted to allow the wearer to automatically sense the temperature of people around them are an interesting development, but not really suited to the South African environment, as the cost of these is quite exorbitant.”

This called for home-grown innovation to address South Africa’s needs and challenges, she said: “It would be interesting to take these ideas and make them our own in the South African and African environment.”

In the Eastern Cape, Nelson Mandela University has collaborated with local authorities to develop and deploy innovative solutions to support field hospitals and the screening of learners returning to school, van Greunen said.

“For example, we were asked to develop the tools to assist with screening in the schools – and it is a daunting task to roll out tools to track the health records of 1.8 million learners in 542 schools. We rolled out a comprehensive solution to digitise health screening and attendance records, but it was interesting to note that a number of schools also took the initiative to come up with their own solutions using innovative approaches and their own skills sets,” she said.

Among others, NMU also contributed to solutions such as a Covid-19 case management system to manage records on every person ever tested or under investigation, every contact, test results and tracing. The system is mobile-enabled for use by healthcare workers in the field, and also uses geolocation data to support tracing teams. Other home-grown solutions the university’s team has worked on include the Yabelana app to provide citizens with easily accessible information during the lockdown, an online self-screening tool for university staff and students, and even mental wellness support such as the Find-my-Mojo app, which allows users to simply click on an emoji to connect to 24/7 support services for depression, anxiety or stress. “So even basic apps like this one can help,” van Greunen said.

“This virus is not going to go away overnight, and we need to continue using ICTs innovatively to guide, educate, volunteer, donate and be accountable,” she said. “We should not let down our guard and should use technology to help avoid another surge of infections.”

The IITPSA Tabling Tech webinars form part of a series of interactive industry webinars, hosted by the IITPSA to enhance communication and knowledge sharing among members. For more information about these events, visit https://www.iitpsa.org.za/upcoming-events/
The Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) is the South African industry body for Information Technology professionals and aims to further the study, science and application of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs); maintain and promote Codes of Conduct and Ethics for its members; define and promote standards of ICT knowledge; promote the formulation of effective policies on ICT and related matters; and extend the knowledge and understanding and usage of ICTs in the community. This is achieved by engagement with both Industry and Government on ICT policy, regulations and professional activities, combined with a commitment to the wider community to ensure the beneficial use of ICT. For further information visit www.iitpsa.org.za