Sierra Leone has recorded its tenth case of COVID-19, less than a week after it ended a 72-hour mandatory stay at home to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. During the three-day lockdown, a team of local computer scientists and data engineers from the public and private sectors collaborated to develop technological solutions to enhance the nation’s COVID-19 preparedness and response efforts.
The COVID-19 emergency tech response team made up of experts from the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI), UNICEF, the Emergency Operations Center, Ministry of Information and Communication, Ministry of Health and Sanitation, other government agencies and private sector partners developed and incorporated COVID-19 public health information into the Government of Sierra Leone’s *468# (*GOV#) Public Information System.
They expanded the existing *468# (*GOV#) Government Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) platform to allow citizens to conduct a self-check against their symptoms; learn prevention tips; and get updates on Sierra Leone’s COVID-19 situation, including the number of cases, deaths, and the quarantine status. A complimentary SMS mobile application that offers users the same functionalities was also developed.
Today DSTI and its partners are announcing that the *468# (*GOV#) Government USSD platform and its accompanying 468 SMS Service have been activated to make it easier for citizens’ self-assessment of their coronavirus risk and to access accurate and correct information on COVID-19 on any mobile phone device.
Fix Solutions is the lead private sector partner on USSD mobile service delivery. Their Chief Executive Officer, Sorieba Daffae, was one of the first private sector partners to sign up to the national tech response.
“What the crisis has shown us is that we are on our own. While we have some external support, this is the time to mobilize local expertise. I reached out to DSTI to volunteer towards the COVID-19 tech response to ensure that we could speed up the national effort by leveraging our local market knowledge. Our core competencies are specifically around technology solutions for public service delivery. With the USSD and SMS self-assessment tools, we’ve been able to collaborate with epidemiologists and DSTI to assist with the telecommunications integrations,” said Daffae.
In November 2019, President Julius Maada Bio launched the National Innovation and Digitization Strategy (NIDS) and the USSD Portal to engage citizens and to improve government service delivery. A central principle in NIDS is the development of hybrid technologies that work for everyone.
“We are collaborating with partners across government and the private sector to deliver Sierra Leone’s unified technological response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The SMS and USSD systems work with or without the internet, meaning that we reduce barriers to citizens’ access to information,” said Michala Mackay, Director and Chief Operating Officer, DSTI.
“We have also seen an increase in fake news across social media, which is causing anxiety and fear. Citizens can now use the USSD portal to verify news and get the most up to date information on the national COVID-19 situation.”
According to the 2018 Sierra Leone Integrated Household Survey, two out of every three Sierra Leonean households (77%) have access to a mobile phone, meaning that SMS and USSD-based solutions will reach both citizens in the urban centers and rural communities.
The USSD and SMS solutions offer flexibility to ensure that citizens have access to accurate information, whether or not they are using a smartphone. For now, the USSD code *468# and SMS to 468 are only available to users on Orange, and Africell. Even as the USSD and SMS solutions for COVID-19 go live, citizens are reminded to report any and all emergency to 117 the national helpline.
Sierra Leone has started a two-week partial lockdown that limits travel between districts and a national daily curfew that starts from 9 pm-6 am. During this period, in addition to the COVID-19 services, citizens can use *468# to access information on government facilities and services within their districts including ‘find my nearest hospital’, and others. The COVID-19 tech response team will continue to develop technology for crisis response.