Co-design and digitalization: a winning approach against health emergency in Global South

“Co-design” and “co-participation”, constant communication between users and operators and advanced use of digital technologies: these are the keywords to effectively deal with emergency health situations. Two successful examples are the U-Report and mHero platforms, created to face the epidemics of COVID-19 and Ebola and used in 52 countries around the world.

By Anna Filippucci

The social distancing and the inability to travel freely around the world because of Covid-19 obliged many projects launched in the Global South and characterized by physical intervention to a forced pause. In this extraordinary situation, the real challenge that arose for the cooperation sector and humanitarian aid was to modify and adapt its interventions to the new context; the organizations that knew how to innovate and use a (digital) co-design approach in the realization of projects came out ahead.

But what is meant by co-design? Literally, through this method, interventions become the result of a participatory and dynamic process that involves all stakeholders and recipients of the projects themselves. More than ever now, in a changing and emergency context, a “two-way communication”, meant to identify the actual needs of the recipients of projects, has proved to be fundamental for realizing effective interventions despite the physical distance. The direct interaction between organizations and recipients has often been ensured by innovative digital tools, such as chatbots and mapping systems, for instance.

As Meg Kemp, founder and consultant of Alma Major clearly summarized during the webinar “Designing digital tools for COVID-19 response”, organized by the “Nethope Solutions Center”, interventions based on co-design in emergency situations must necessarily be rapid , but attentive to the changing context and characterized by a constant redefinition of short-term objectives. The use of digital platforms allowing direct communication and constant feedback has proved to be fundamental in this context to improve interventions.

UNICEF’s picture, from the U-Report Project

In this regard, two experiences have been carried out by UNICEF and USAID in various countries of the Global South. The use of new digital technologies has allowed, in both situations, to continue working remotely during emergency health situations. The UNICEF “U-Report” program represents a successful experience in this sense: it consists in a data collection platform, which works through an instant messaging system and accessible both via SMS (without data connection), and from social messaging platforms (Whatsapp, Messenger, Viber …). The interacting users remain anonymous and must only provide information relating to their age, their gender and their location. The collected data is useful for UNICEF, the other NGOs partners and local authorities to formulate effective interventions, but also to produce awareness, encourage community empowerment and know in depth the needs and problems of communities themselves.

Given the success of the platform in recent years, used in 68 countries at a rate of 30 reports per second, UNICEF has decided to adapt and use it (since last February) as a data set and information collection system relating to the Covid-19 emergency. This “Covid information Chabot” has allowed a widespread dissemination of information in the 52 countries where it has been tested; in Ivory Coast, for example, through a partnership with major mobile phone companies, it has been consulted 2.5 million times, especially by a very young audience. In addition to providing useful information for self-diagnosis and prevention measures, the chatbot has gradually become the main and most reliable source of information also for the government and the mass media, such as radio and newspapers.

Jaclyn Carlsen, ICT policy Advisor at USAID, on the other hand, related the experience of the Agency in Liberia, during the health emergency caused by Ebola, in 2014. In this context, in close collaboration with the Liberian ministry of health, USAID promoted and implemented the mHero program, a messaging and mapping system, aimed at improving communication with healthcare professionals and structures located in remote areas of the country. mHero has allowed the dissemination of information and a better organization of work and resources, proving to be extremely useful. In fact, it has also been used later by other departments directly linked to the Ministry of Health, such as the Mental Health Unit, Family Assistance and Supply Chain Management.

Both experiences clearly illustrate the advantages of a participatory approach to the realization of projects in emergency situations, as well as the added value given by the use of digital technologies. Only through consolidated partnerships, a deep knowledge of the context and a constant empowerment of the recipients, is it possible to develop platforms that truly respond to the specific needs of a community in an emergency situation.