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Friday, September 17, 2021

A data-driven revolution for a better future

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Suruwa B. Wawa Jaiteh

In a matter of months, over 3 million people have been infected, hundreds of thousands have died, health systems have been overwhelmed, economies decimated and the social fabric of countries stretched to the point of tearing.But this crisis also presents an unprecedented choice for development – a return to business as usual or a fundamentally alternative future.

The response to this pandemic is arguably the most digitally enabled in history, with innovationns supporting disease surveillance, providing information to citizenry, enabling teleworking, facilitating online collaboration and learning and making social relief assistance/payments at immense scale possible. Financial resources are being made available in volumes that dwarf the response to the global financial crisis of 2007 to 2008.
Lockdowns have taken vehicles off the streets, allowed people to work from home, work for reduced days in the week and, at the same time care for families and given people a glimpse of mountains and blue skies they have never been able to see through persistent fog. Some leaders are talking more enthusiastically about planetary health and social well-being as an equal, if not greater, measure of national success than gross domestic product (GDP). Covid-19 is leading to unprecedented speed and collaboration in vaccine and antibody development. Within the span of 90 days, nearly 1,700 economic policy announcements on Covid-19 have been made by governments and institutions to ameliorate the worst of the impacts.

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Perhaps like no time before we are seeing experimentation at scale and speed. But what works? What are the opportunity costs? What are the differentiated impacts across income groups, the marginalized, the vulnerable, and across different geographic areas? Where do you invest your financial resources – knowing that each debt dollar spent will be for future generations to repay – to obtain the highest returns measured by planetary health and social well-being as much as growth in GDP? When do you ease lockdowns? Certainly, in The Gambia, and likely in most other developing countries, existing approaches for monitoring impact andefficacy are piecemeal and certainly not at the scale and granularity required to enable well-informed systemic change. It does not have to be this way. There is an immense amount of administrative and high frequency data and mature frameworks for structuring it in meaningful ways. We need to converge these frameworks, data streams and data standards to make better sense and guide an effective response and shape our desired future.

Covid-19 for its deleterious effects, can provide the stimulus for data collaborations to chart the way to the “new normal”. Now is the time to bring together government, industry, social media, NGOs, researchers (national/international) under a common platform to collect (and with due regard to data privacy and civil rights), inject, synthesise, visualize and analyse with the aid of artificial intelligence and predictive software, a wide array of data and translate these into evidence-based policies and programmes.

Covid-19 is showing that revolutionary change is possible. We are seeing a tsunami of information engulfing us. The sheer magnitude of the crisis is also providing us the impetus for reflection on the future we need. Data collaborations, enabled by technology can help us accelerate towards a dramatically different, equitable and sustainable world. If there is a “Covid-19 dividend,” it is perhaps the opportunity for a data-driven revolution for a better future.

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