A global pandemic is showing the world that technology needs to serve the people
The world is watching as grim milestones are met, month after month, in the fight against the coronavirus. Globally, confirmed cases of COVID-19 have exceeded 30 million people. Almost a million people have now died. This public health crisis, massive in scale, is devastating and destabilizing countries and communities. We know that already vulnerable people that suffer the most. Children are right at the top of that list. In April 2020, the United Nations published a Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on children. The brief outlines the risks and the ways that children need to be protected as governments and civil society plan and manage their responses to the pandemic.
These risks are now a daily reality for millions of children and women around the world. The health and economic impacts of the pandemic deservedly receive much of the attention. However, other dimensions of inequality and social exclusion are surfacing. The pandemic demands that children and their families isolate, maintain their distance and stay home from school. Poverty deepens along with the threat of violence, exploitation and abuse. In parallel, disruptions to access to lifesaving services are creating a perfect storm. These risks are enumerated and analyzed in the August 2020 UNICEF report Protecting children from violence in the time of COVID-19: Disruptions in prevention and response services. The report indicates that "1.8 billion children live in the 104 countries where violence prevention and response services have been disrupted due to COVID-19" and that "Case management and home visits for children and women at risk of abuse are among the most commonly disrupted services."
Social services providers tasked with protecting children and women under these circumstances struggle to connect with individuals and families to ensure continuity of services and to identify new cases of individuals at risk. By necessity, they are adapting to remote case management. In these circumstances, technology has an important role to play. The question is: Do they have the necessary tools?
The pandemic is exposing new dimensions of inequality in the public sector where there is a clear lack of investment in innovation. In his Forbes article COVID-19 Reminds Us Why Innovation Is Often A Public Good, author Nish Acharya asks why, in this time of desperate public need, there is so little evidence of government investment in public goods? Citing the lack of availability to readily scalable public good resources, he makes a case for increased investment in technology solutions to serve the most in need. "Our lack of innovation in many public goods has been laid bare.... the COVID-19 crisis has exposed some of the problems with our private-sector-led innovation model." While entrepreneurs may have great ideas for social projects, the lack of large, established markets for these products, specifically digital public goods, is most certainly a factor.
"We need a concerted global effort from Member States, the UN system, private sectors, and others, to promote open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy, applicable laws and do no harm. These have vast potential to help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals."
United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has boldly outlined a plan for the future of technology as force for public good. In June 2020 he launched a new Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. In his speech he painted a picture of the world at a crossroads. Technology, ever more present in our everyday lives, capable of solving problems that have plagued humankind for centuries, is also a threat to our shared prosperity. The Roadmap is an important acknowledgement of the role that technology has to play in human development, and its aim is to "connect, respect, and protect people in the digital age".
This Roadmap has been the subject of much discussion, and this past week was the theme of several high level events at the 75th United Nations General Assembly. Digital Cooperation: Action Today for Future Generations, brought together some of the worlds leading tech companies and thinkers, young people, government leaders, and UN and civil society actors. They shared a common message: More needs to be done to bring the power of technology to bear on the public good. Action needs to be taken to advance equality in the digital age. Change needs to happen now. Could The Roadmap be the answer?
"Unless we address digital instability and inequality, they will continue to exacerbate physical instability and inequality."
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres
Vision: Primero as a digital public good
The social welfare sector is traditionally underfunded, when compared to sectors like health and education. This means that the relative size of the marketplace for social welfare digital solutions is also small, and so slow to modernize. In short, the sector is a victim of the dynamics of exclusion that we've seen explored in the The Roadmap and other cited publications. As a community of practice, we are aiming to fill the gap in social welfare for a fit-for-purpose, open source solution that can be easily, affordably and safely used by frontline workers. We want to move our sector forward, address the inefficiencies and insecurity of paper-based documentation, and save this workforce time and energy. Time and energy that they can spend with their clients, teams and families. We want to support that digital transformation. They deserve it.
Over the past year, the Primero Team has been actively pursuing this goal. In advance of the launch of the new Primero v2, our interagency Board has studied the maturity rubrics for digital public goods and taken actions to ensure we are in compliance. We have been nominated as a digital public good with the Digital Public Goods Alliance, and committed to meeting these standards. Through a partnership with The Digital Impact Alliance, we have made huge progress towards the development of a Sustainability Plan that will allow us to scale Primero in a way that is accessible to all. That means more resources go to programmes. That means fewer hours go to paperwork. That means less risk and more reward.
The right tools in the hands of the right people can make a world of difference for vulnerable children. Join us in delivering our part of the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.