Sierra Leone’s fight for inclusive digital services

image from PJ's essay 'sierra leone's fight for inclusive digital services' from the pdf of the proof

In 2018, at a time when less than 10% of Sierra Leone’s population was using the internet regularly, the government established the Directorate of Science Technology and Innovation (DSTI) and made it responsible for the digital transformation of the country. However, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states:

“Digital transformation can only be fully realised if high quality access to communication networks and services is made available at affordable prices for all people and firms, no matter who they are, or where they live.”

The current demographic trends and emerging technologies give the country an opportunity for global development through innovation.

In 2019, the DSTI published Sierra Leone’s National Innovation and Digital Strategy (NIDS) following in-depth research on the digital landscape in the country by the DSTI and with support from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vision was: ‘digitisation for all’. The 3 strategic principles that would help us achieve that were:

1. Country-as-AI-lab—leveraging data to inform government decision-making and service delivery.

2. Mobile first—connecting more citizens.

3. Hybrid technologies—adopting an omni-channel approach to ensure services are inclusive.

Country-as-AI-lab

The National Innovation and Digital Strategy prioritises a ‘country-as-AI-lab’ model which is grounded in 2 beliefs:

  1. In order to address its societal challenges, a country must use both quantitative and qualitative research methods within its social context.

  2. We should take what we learn from our research in order to first develop and then scale successful approaches so they benefit the whole country.

The strategy says: ‘Sierra Leone has provided the platform for AI and data science research and prototype development to seed, scale and translate innovations for positively impacting citizens.’

Methods for dealing with the pandemic—including social distancing and national lockdowns—have been particularly difficult to apply in low and middle income countries. With this in mind, the DSTI worked with academia, international development partners, research institutions and the private sector to use both quantitative and qualitative research methods and AI to support decisions on lockdowns and other interventions during the pandemic.

For example, we used anonymised call data records to understand people’s movements and introduced lockdown restrictions by district to stem the spread of the virus whilst allowing access to market and other essential services. The DSTI in partnership with MIT Governance Lab carried out national perception surveys to help the government ‘[...] understand what our people know and their ability to effectively respond to, and support us, in any interventions we plan in this fight against covid-19.’

Mobile first

In the quest for ‘digitisation for all’, it’s important to consider that mobile technology is the only technology that has the potential to connect all Sierra Leoneans. Recent data shows that the country has a mobile penetration of approximately 88% with a 47% mobile broadband connection rate which is predicted.

With this in mind, it was essential that we pledged to prioritise the development and availability of services that are optimised for mobile devices in the public and private sector.

Two years on from the launch of NIDS, we have seen public and private sector service providers design services that people can access through mobile phones to deliver vital services and make policy decisions.

Here’s a good example: before the introduction of the SMS and the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data Government Services Portal (USSD GSP), students’ families needed internet access through a computer, an email address, and a triple-use scratch card that cost USD 6.15 just so they could see if their national exam results were available. It was an expensive, time consuming process and had an impact on entire families—not just the students waiting for their results. Additionally, students in national exam classes lost about 3 months of learning to get results and school placement.

The GSP allows families to access national exam results at their convenience, at zero cost using a short USSD code, on the most basic feature phones. They just type ‘results’ and see options from there. By September 2021, the service had 327,133 unique users check their national exam results. The use of mobile technology to access services is expanding and continues to improve citizens’ user experience.

Hybrid technologies

Despite mobile technologies playing an essential role in Sierra Leone’s digital transformation, the NIDS predicts that the future will be ‘increasingly hybrid’.

It expects there will be more need for ‘system-wide solutions that are optimised to reach all citizens in[side] and outside of conventional market segments’, and it believes that ‘modern technology has blurred the lines between binary solutions (for example, online and offline applications; or distributed cloud-based and local server solutions) through the development of hybrid systems and algorithms.’

Here’s an example of when the public sector has used a combination of methods to deliver services to citizens: President Bio launched the Free Quality School Education Programme in 2018. However, the pandemic forced national-scale school closures and students stayed at home. The Ministry of Education in partnership with the DSTI, collaborated to develop methods of teaching over the web, television, radio and mobile technology. The result of this hybrid method was little to no break in students’ education—it gave them different options to access education in line with the Government’s Radical Inclusion Policy.

Looking to the future

The National Development Plan indicates that the government is clear on the benefits of technology for accelerating development and equality, but it also recognises the importance of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. An important question for the team at the DSTI is not whether we use technology, but how we use technology to support greater access to services across all sectors, increasing and improving evidence-based policy making, and enabling digitisation for all. We will make sure we safeguard this.

Public Digital