‘Take advantage of all available data’
–NDMA official urges, so as to increase efficiency to fight pandemics, assist vulnerable
THE COVID-19 pandemic has re-opened the eyes of the National Data Management Authority (NDMA) to the importance of the use of data, already accessible by the government, to improve the lives of citizens.
Speaking on the subject on Monday on the programme, ‘Bush-Tea Time’, hosted by the National Communication Network (NCN), NDMA General Manager Floyd Levi said that at the height of China’s outbreak, the authorities there made quick use of available technology and data to identify and isolate people who might be spreading the illness.
He made the point also that though, in China’s case, there are concerns about privacy, persons were generally pleased with a hi-tech approach to dealing with the deadly virus.
‘Big data’, as high volumes of structured and unstructured information are called, he went on to explain, can be organised by governments to increase efficiency in the areas of law enforcement, education, government audits, urban planning, economic development, emergency planning and more.
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Levi said that in the case of Guyana, it is important that those in authority here make an effort to put their houses in order, in terms of organising whatever data they have available, as in the event another crisis like COVID-19 should ever impact the country again, Guyana should be able to identify the most vulnerable in its society, based on information already collected by the various agencies.
“A lot of this data is generated by your Bank, by your university… It is the reservoir of the data that you generate in your daily, weekly, monthly, annual interaction in a particular space,” Levi said, adding: “Using that data, we now see how China has been able to do contact-and-tracing of persons affected by COVID, even without the individual having to raise their hand to say ‘I think I’ve been in contact with someone.’”
As he went on to explain, “That’s just one very small but glaring example of how ‘Big Data’ is being used. We can use that in so many instances; from the time we are born, we go through so many requirements before we get to adulthood… We should not be waiting on citizens, in this day and age, to come to government for services; Government has to have the mentality that it is their duty to deliver services to citizens, and use the available data that we already capture.”
Giving other examples of how databanks can come in handy, Levi said that for instance, data already available from the birth of a child at hospitals can address school admissions, while data from the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) can help to locate possible businesses in need.
And though Guyana might be a little behind the development curve, Levi believes that such deliberate changes will allow for a better-governed country with more efficient systems.
“We should be embracing these concepts of ‘big data’ and ‘open data’ to make our governance so much easier,” he said, adding: “Unfortunately, we’re not there as yet, but a lot of these things come down to our understanding.”
However, impacting this general understanding of the importance of organised data is the level of digital literacy in Guyana. According to Levi, there is a 50-55 per cent Internet penetration-rate in Guyana as a result of its unique challenges, when compared its regional neighbours.
Guyana is the largest Caribbean country with a population of less than a million. And as a developing country, its geographical landscape and infrastructural challenges hinder ease of access to many remote areas.
As a result, depending on where one lives, they may not have access to Internet services. Levi said that at times, the geography of Guyana can prevent telecommunications companies from delivering services to some locations.
And geography aside, there are also such other challenges as the socio-economic aspect of things, which can limit Internet access to the less fortunate, who often choose to prioritise other basic needs before that of technology.
“At 50 per cent Internet penetration,” Levi said, “we recognise that many of our citizens are being left out of this global information revolution that we’re all enjoying.”
However, the NDMA has come to realise that even if these challenges were to be eliminated, and all citizens were presented with devices and access to the Internet, there is still the challenge of the inability of all Guyanese to understand how to safely navigate their way around the Web.
“So, the question of digital skills really poses a unique challenge for us,” Levi said, adding: “I believe it’s going to take some time and some diligent effort to have our citizens develop the necessary digital skills to allow us to participate fully in this cyber space.”
He noted that the Centre for Excellence in Information Technology (CEIT) at the University of Guyana (UG) and other technical institutes are working towards filling the gap.
Deputy Programmme Manager for Information and Communications Technologies for Development at the CARICOM Secretariat, Ms. Jennifer Britton, who was also on the programme, emphasised that digital literacy must begin from childhood.
She said that as the world becomes more and more digitised, Guyana also needs to ensure that their adults are efficient in the use of technology as these are who the country currently depend upon to plan for present and future development.
“It has to be this constantly moving continuum, where we are rolling out people who are trained,” Britton said. Levi agreed that no segment of the population should be neglected in this regard, be it the elderly, Persons With Disabilities (PWD) and a balance of both genders.
He said that the government, academia, the private sector and civil society all have roles to play in ensuring that the necessary policies and infrastructure are in place to ensure that no group of citizens suffer digital exclusion.
by Lisa Hamilton |Guyana Chronicle