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Putting a human face to information technologies

Africa Renewal December 2019 - March 2020 Issue

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Putting a human face to information technologies

Photo credit: ITU

It was just after midnight when Simon (not his real name) was woken up by a loud blaring noise tearing into the dark night. It had been raining heavily over the past few days. He tried to ignore the noise, but it got more insistent with each passing second. 

He finally decided to step out of his bed, but before his feet could touch the floor, he felt water. It was already ankle high. At that moment he realized the source of the annoying sound. It was a danger signal from the newly installed flood warning system.

Simon and his family quickly left their house for a nearby hill. By the time they got to the main road the water was already knee high. Soon, safely on high ground and joined by neighbours, the villagers huddled in small groups to discuss their night ordeal.

For many years Butaleja District in eastern Uganda was ravaged by floodwaters from the River Manafwa. Residents watched helplessly as the water destroyed their farmlands and washed away their houses and other properties. 

To address the problem, the government of Uganda, with the support of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN body on information and communication technologies, installed solar-powered flood early warning systems to alert residents of quickly rising water levels. The first of such systems was installed in 2014 on the Namulo Bridge in Butaleja District.

The warning system has three main components: a sensor that is placed in the river, a solar-powered siren adjacent to the river, and a solar-powered control centre at the district headquarters, with backup computers to monitor the performance of the sensors and siren system.

Once the water levels reach a certain threshold on the sensor, the siren is automatically activated. A loud warning signal can be heard over a 10-mile radius. Staff at the control centre use the siren system to broadcast messages in English and Lunyole, the local language, to guide residents during evacuations. 

Installing this early warning system is one of the ways governments and their international partners are harnessing information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help save lives. Authorities are also using ICTs for disaster risk reduction and management and during outbreaks of diseases, with technologies ranging from early warning and prevention systems to on-the-ground communications in the aftermath of disasters. 

Emergency telecommunications deployed after a disaster ensure a timely flow of vital information among government agencies and humanitarian actors involved in rescue operations.  

When a disaster strikes, ITU deploys its staff and emergency equipment, including satellite terminals, to ensure that the critical communication channels of governments and humanitarian agencies are restored and, where they do not exist, are installed to help coordinate relief efforts. 
This was the case when Ebola broke out in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014. ITU launched Ebola-Info-App to disseminate critical information from official sources with the public and health organizations. 

ITU has also teamed up with partners in several African countries in using ICTs for solutions to everyday problems. Its joint partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO), known as the Be He@lthy, Be Mobile Initiative, is helping governments in Africa use mobile technology to track noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart and lung diseases. 

In July 2016 it launched the mHealth programme in Tunisia to help people quit smoking cigarettes and shisha, a water pipe filled with tobacco. The programme, called Yezzi! (Enough!), uses interactive two-way communication through text messages to provide continuous support to smokers during the first six months of quitting tobacco. It supplements traditional approaches to breaking the smoking habit and has helped people quit tobacco permanently. 

Once enrolled with Yezzi! a person receives supportive text messages at regular intervals, or in response to user requests for information and assistance. To make the system as relevant and effective as possible, the content of the messages is tailored to different target audiences, including adolescents, young adults, and middle-aged smokers. The emphasis is to provide support during the first six months after a person quits using tobacco, when it’s most stressful and relapses often occur. 

In Senegal the government is using Be He@lthy, Be Mobile to introduce an mDiabetes service that sends tips and advice to diabetics on how to manage the disease. The first phase of mDiabetes was launched in 2014 in time for the month of Ramadan, often a period of high sugar consumption and dietary irregularity, when health authorities witness a peak in emergency hospitalization of people with uncontrolled diabetes. Users receive free text messages to increase awareness and help diabetics avoid the complications triggered by fasting and feasting.

Zambian authorities are planning to use the Be He@lthy, Be Mobile programme to increase public awareness of cervical cancer screenings. The mobile system will alert and educate women most at risk of developing the disease, especially those between 25 and 59 years old. It will encourage screening to detect early symptoms and send reminders of scheduled appointments.  

There is no doubt information technology is increasingly becoming the foundation upon which economic and social development can advance. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by world leaders in 2015 recognizes that “the spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and develop knowledge societies.” 

Over the last decade, growth in ICT use in Africa has exceeded expectations, particularly in the mobile phone market, driven by significant infrastructure investment, increased access to mobile broadband, a high degree of competition, falling prices and prepaid services. 

ITU reckons mobile phone subscriptions in the region will reach 772 million by the end of 2016, up from 87 million in 2005. The number of people using the Internet in Africa is also growing rapidly and is expected to reach 240 million by the end of 2016, compared to 17 million in 2005. 

“ICTs, especially mobile phones, have revolutionized communications in Africa and are empowering people everywhere on the continent, promoting entrepreneurship, innovation, generating income and setting a path towards the attainment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” says Brahima Sanou, the director of the ITU’s Telecommunications Development Bureau. 

He explained that the world is moving to a future era where ICTs will revolutionize government processes, save lives when disasters strike, bring education to people in need, extend health services to rural and remote areas and facilitate trade and business through smart harbors and smart cities. “We need to put a human face on ICTs to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” he says.

Monica Albertini is a communications officer at the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union.