COVID-19 transforming government IT
We’ve been talking about the fourth industrial revolution for a while now, but the pandemic and the associated lockdown have brought to the fore the urgency of implementing the levels of digitalisation and automation required to enable 4IR, particularly in the public sector.
Last year, the South African government established a Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which aims to integrate this country into the economy of the future by 2030. The commission has presented a draft diagnostic report towards the country’s 4IR plan and opportunities available to harness it. Magatho Mello, GM for Public Enterprises at MTN Business, says South Africa’s digitisation drive is already well in hand, the benefits of this are evidenced in the e-learning and e-health initiatives that have come to the fore during the pandemic.
“We’re excited about what the IOT can deliver to government, especially when allied with a platform that enables the management and monitoring of millions of devices across government, everything from vehicles to phones to environmental sensors.”
“We see great opportunities from data sets coming out of public sector IOT deployments. These can significantly influence the economic impact of events – such as COVID-19 – and also assist planning.”
The advent of COVID-19 has, in many instances, sped up digitisation initiatives in the public sector, as schools and other educational institutions had to implement virtual lessons overnight and the healthcare sector had to find a way to record and share coronavirus data, while businesses had to enable a remote workforce with very little time to prepare.
In the healthcare sector there has been great progress. Virtual tools that allow people to be remotely screened for COVID-19 risk factors and symptoms have been introduced to the market, not to mention the rapid deployment of data gathering around infection rates and technologies such as thermal cameras in public spaces and at building entrances. Mello says: “The data from these cameras can be centralised and analysed to enable government to deploy resources as and where required.”
Field workers who are testing people for COVID-19 are using handheld devices to record results so that data can be recorded in real-time, enabling government to provide up-to-date statistics to citizens – and to mobilise additional healthcare in areas with high infection rates.
Any IOT implementation in the public sector includes disaster recovery and business continuity solutions based on hybrid cloud – and data security is a non-negotiable. Mello says: “Data partitioning and ensuring that the data is kept in country are both important considerations for government solutions. It’s thus imperative that government has access to the expertise it requires to properly secure this data, as well as recover it quickly and effectively, should any systems be compromised,” he says.
4IR relies on cloud, IOT, robotics, AI and machine learning technologies. The data generated by IOT needs to be aggregated and stored in private cloud solutions built specifically for the public sector. This requires access to skills such as application development and data scientists, which may have to be outsourced.”
Data scientists can then analyse the mined data and provide insights that will enable the government to plan and make data-driven decisions.
“These initiatives have more impetus and focus than ever before as a result of the growing realisation that public sector institutions can no longer operate independently or in bubbles. The moment you have an array of digital tools in the field, you start generating and gathering data that can be collated and analysed to get a holistic view.”
Another example of how 4IR could be deployed for the benefit of all would be the digitisation of the municipal police force. Mello explains: “If 6 000 JMPD police officers were given handheld devices to record their daily activities, including the issuing of fines, the resulting data could be analysed to enable route optimisation, better planning of their daily movements, you’d be able to see how often they stopped people as well as the percentage of expired discs or licences or other infractions. Fines written out manually in a book have to be captured, not only a manual and labour intensive process, but one that runs the risk of digits being omitted or names misspelt. This could result in loss of revenue, while also compromising law enforcement and road safety.”
He believes the country has reached the tipping point on digitisation. “The onus is very much on companies like MTN to approach government with solutions that can help it function more efficiently and effectively, using technology. The big challenge, in my view, is to establish a mechanism that will allow the public sector to beta test these recommendations prior to putting them out to tender. Containerised testing to validate the practicality of such proposals in practice would be hugely beneficial.
“The ultimate aim is to help government extend the reach of its services and bring these closer to all the citizens, wherever they may be,” he concludes.