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Virus threat: A lab technician gears up for visiting a quarantine ward at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi

Fifth Estate

Artificial inteligence could help in managing Covid-19

It is during such times like the current coronavirus outbreak that we ask ourselves hard questions, including how can innovations like Artificial Intelligence (AI), help us improve our responses and handling of such challenges. Elsewhere it has been shown what AI and machine-automated applications can perform several tasks done by a human being. From smart cities, to facial recognition- not the basic ones on your mobile phone, but cameras that can detect that you have been to four malls in the city within the past one week and recognize your face when you are exiting at the airport-to fully automated sale points and ticketing centers.

AI-powered tracking and warning systems, intensive observation methodologies and testing can be of huge importance to the country in the war on the corona virus. Availability of government-run big-data platforms such as CCTVs and others store information of all citizens and foreigners and integrates them for use. With such information, its easier to track people they have been in contact with during that time, and bring them under observation and medical tests. AI ensures prompt execution of all these steps. Hospitals, ambulance services, mobile test labs — all rely on the IT sector and technology to deliver prompt and efficient services. 

Outside its negative side, would the implementation of the Huduma Namba in time have been useful to the country in dealing with the current coronavirus, especially in tracking down possible suspects, those self-isolating and travel history of people- through obviously the issue of individual privacy has been raised before.

There have been previous innovations where technological applications and mobile phones have been used to tracking and offering health services to malaria patients and reproductive health services to teens. Tech giants including Google, Facebook, Huawei through their various applications have been working overnight elsewhere to support the management of coronavirus outbreak. Hopefully, Kenya, which has the presence of such big techs, will eventually benefit from their technological innovation.

Today, while reading an article by Eunice Kilonzo online, technology and medical services, my mind went to the many other stories I have read relating to technological innovations including mobile phone applications that have helped in enhancing the delivery of health services to Kenyans. Kilonzo talks about “Ada” a mobile application that uses AI to track symptoms to get to the probable cause of an ailment.  The app, developed by Ada Health, a Germany-based health tech company, combines a database for 160 different diseases with intelligent reasoning technology.

It is reported that South Korea is fighting the virus by using big-data analysis, AI-powered advance warning systems and intensive observation methodology-the government-run big-data platform stores information of all citizens and resident foreign nationals and integrates all government organisations, hospitals, financial services, mobile operators, and other services into it, which is then integrated and used.

Huawei, which behind the 5G technology and working with Safaricom, can assist Kenya in coming up with applications through mobile phones to mapping out and alerting health providers about the epicenters. Mobile phone operators Safaricom and Airtel have already reduced and or slashed charges on their money transfer services.

I know Huawei since January started on a work-from-home schedule, office cleaning, social distance disinfecting office vehicles, employee shuttle buses and checking every employee’s and guests’ temperature, ensuring that all staff who had traveled from any country with any cases have been undergoing 14 days self-isolation and requiring all employees to submit daily reports on their health status. Many other local and international companies have embraced the same since last week when Kenya confirmed its first case, which have now risen to 4.

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The bigger assignment I would expect from them is to scale up management of the critical telecommunications infrastructure and IT systems for the government as well as telecommunication companies, which is the back borne of the country’s public awareness, information sharing and money transfer services.

Huawei must ensure that all telecoms systems function and can handle the current cashless economy we are dealing with because of the outbreak including working with Safaricom for M-PESA as well as other critical hardware and software.

I belong to a group started by Facebook called Coronavirustechhandbook.com, where guys are posting innovations and efforts by tech experts and companies to make a contribution to the handling of the outbreak.  For example, www.trackmycircle.com site where you log your contacts and you will be notified by email when a peer (or 3rd degree) is found COVID-19 positive so that you can self-isolate. Another interesting innovation is on www.worldmeters.info

With such big technology giants like Google, Facebook, IBM and others having research hubs across the continent, we expect technology to play a big role in dealing with coronavirus on the continent. Could we see AI-powered drones used in tracking and monitoring and identification of cases and related interventions in combating the outbreak?

We want to see players like the media using technology like skype, google recorders and related audio applications to carry out interviews and bring us news without necessarily attending face-to-face interviews and reporting to newsrooms.

Can those in charge of dissemination of information consider doing multimedia messages that can be shared across the country including with community and locally-based journalists to help in public education?

Victor Bwire is the Head of Media Development and Strategy at the Media Council of Kenya.

E-mail: [email protected]

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