Digital technology has been described as one of the key factors that can contribute to reducing inequality, facilitating social inclusion, and improving people’s quality of life. This presents an opportunity for development practitioners and corporates to explore ways in which tech can be more inclusive and contribute to the wellbeing of our society. To give further perspective on this topic, Gustav Praekelt shared some insights with delegates at the Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference 2020.

Technology as a facilitator of social inclusion

Praekelt is the founder of the, a leader in the use of open source technologies to deliver essential information and inclusive services. He began by outlining how the modern era of technology was born a few hundred years ago, with the advent of print media, and has evolved to electronic media such as radio and television. While these technologies might have been designed for the elite, they have steadily become more democratised, allowing more people to access information.

“If anybody here is old enough to remember the launch of mobile phones, back in 1994, it was not a tool that was originally envisioned for everybody, yet here we are now, with every single person basically having a mobile phone,” said Praekelt.

The past couple of years have also seen communication shift from one-directional media such as radio or television, to more interactive platforms like social media. As part of their efforts to use tech for social good, telecommunications giants like Vodacom have also begun launching platforms such as gender-based violence (GBV) hotlines and websites which provide zero-rated educational content.

Vodacom mom Connect

Sharing his experience with technology for social inclusion, Praekelt made reference to MomConnect. This is a South African initiative developed by the and pioneered by the Department of Health in 2012. The multifaceted programme creates demand for maternal health services as well as improves the supply and quality of those services. More than a million mothers in South Africa are signed up to the service, making it one of the largest maternal health programmes in the world.

“In any given year, we have almost 80% of mothers in South Africa signing up to the platform. And its premise is that we can provide information on a personalised level for every mother during pregnancy. Mothers also receive information after they have had their babies, including personalised advice around the health of the child,” explained Praekelt.

When MomConnect was initially launched, the focus was just on providing correct information on things such as prevention of HIV transmission or ARV treatment to end users. However, the quickly realised there was huge appetite for interactive messaging, specifically for services that provide personalised advice. By providing a return channel, the organisation was able to make the service more interactive and better suited to the needs of end users.

“Over time, we’ve added a lot more features. For instance, we were able to support the government’s tracking and tracing programme in response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” explained Praekelt.

Partnering with the World Health Organisation

Following the success of its platforms, the has since worked with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to make the same information and technology available on a global scale. Through this effort, the WHO launched a health alert app and has now reached over 10 million users. The messaging service provides the latest global news and information on Covid-19, including details on symptoms and how people can protect themselves and others. It also provides the latest situation reports and numbers in real time to help government decision-makers protect the health of their populations.

Almost half a billion messages, translated into 18 languages, have been sent through the service. In addition, more than ten national governments have since launched similar technologies based on the original work done by the in South Africa.

Another example of the work done by the is the digital stress management tool, again launched in partnership with the WHO. “We’re particularly proud of this particular service because one of the side effects of Covid-19 unintended consequences been its impact on mental health,” said Praekelt.

Key lessons

The has achieved a number of successes in the past couple of years as well as in the period since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Praekelt highlighted a number of lessons from this experience:

  • Technology can be transformative in providing social services. However, to be effective, it has to be human-centred. This means actively engaging other stakeholders on an ongoing basis and employing a creative approach to problem-solving that starts with people.
  • Tech solutions do not need to be complex or expensive to be effective. The has achieved some of its greatest successes and most meaningful impact through simple technologies such as SMS services, USSD services and mobile apps.
  • It is important for technology to be accessible and interactive. Feedback mechanisms facilitate bidirectional communication and enable technology to be responsive to evolving user demands. This fosters inclusion and empowers users to influence the systems and service providers they interact with.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of being able to adapt to unpredictable and fast-paced situations and disseminate information quickly. As such, the information provided by the has changed significantly. As the pandemic continues to play out, the organisation has begun thinking of how it can use its expertise to do even more. Instead of just providing clinical information, the is exploring ways in which it can provide support to small businesses as the economy reopens, or provide the right information to people as the world emerges from lockdown.

Written by Connie Huma