UN, telcos in Africa take on Covid-19 with AI and digital service

A man walks outside the entrance to the Yaounde General Hospital in Yaounde, Cameroon on March 6, 2020.

(CNN)The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa joined forces with a group of telecoms operating in Africa to reach over 600 million mobile subscribers with coronavirus health advice.

The Africa Communications Intelligence Platform will be deployed on mobile phones via text and voice messaging in at least 23 African countries in its first phase, UNECA said.
It will offer coronavirus-related health tips, feature a symptom checker and allow users to take short health and economic surveys related to the pandemic, Tunde Fafunwa of the UN economic agency in Africa told CNN.
    Fafunwa said the platform would analyze anonymous user-generated responses and information from social media platforms using artificial intelligence to identify trends around the outbreak.
    UNECA said insights gained from the curated data will be used to support national Covid-19 task forces and relevant ministries to help countries evaluate their response to the pandemic.
    With more than 320,000 coronavirus cases and the World Health Organization says the pandemic is accelerating on the continent.

    Spot infection hotspots

    Authorities can also spot potential coronavirus hotspots and direct their social responses to areas from the platform's information, Fafunwa said
    "Some governments are trying to distribute social benefits and cash payments during the pandemic. The platform will give the opportunity to understand the economic and health situation better," Fafunwa told CNN.
    MTN CEO Rob Shuter said the service leverages existing simple narrowband technology that is beneficial for subscribers that don't have smart phones.
    Shuter said aside from its benefit to governments initiatives, operators can use the service to share timely information on the pandemic.
    "What we see with Covid-19 is that we don't really have resources to deploy in an entire country, and this will help target our scarce resources and interventions as a society to where they're needed," Shuter said at the launch Tuesday.
      The platform is key to reaching businesses in the informal sector with policies and interventions they need during the outbreak, Vera Songwe, UNECA Executive Secretary said.
      "With the Covid-19 crisis we will not know how to find them( SMEs) and we would not know how to bring the much-needed assistance to them. The platform allows us to provide them with the resources needed during the crisis to ensure that they have some ways of sustaining and being resilient to the pandemic," Songwe said.