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How indigenous tech innovations are helping Pakistan battle the pandemic

UNICEF Pakistan
With tools ranging from mapping to telehealth, and apps providing services related to grocery delivery and education, local technologies are fighting covid-19 on multiple fronts
by Annam Lodhi

In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, our traditional ways of socializing, learning, working and accessing other essential services, have been disrupted. As a result, there has been an increased reliance on technology to perform many tasks without endangering lives. During the first month of the pandemic alone, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority revealed that internet usage had gone up by 15%.

Below we list some of Pakistan’s tech innovations that are helping lead through the pandemic.

MAPPING TOOLS

 National Command Operation Center’s Smart Lockdown Technology is an indigenous system developed by the National Information Technology Board. Shabahat Ali Shah, CEO NITB, explains that the app provides a dashboard to NCOC to view coronavirus cases in real time on a map, with their exact locations and movements.

With the help of these maps, policymakers were not only able to outline areas with numerous covid-19 cases, but also figure out which areas were spreading the virus faster and needed to be locked down. This allows for the country to run unhindered, while constraining the virus in certain localities.

The system is being used across the country and has highlighted 92 clusters in 20 big cities. “It is a highly effective system in curbing the virus,” says Shah who has been sharing updates and data from the system on his Twitter feed regularly.

HEALTH TECH

Health has undoubtedly taken the front seat and innovators across the world are working on making medicine accessible for the masses. With social distancing being practiced at hospitals battling covid-19, patients are increasingly consulting general doctors or specialists from their homes via online applications.

Oladoc

An online consultation portal, Oladoc has added a new feature to their already running app and website, where patients can consult doctors remotely. With a user-friendly business model, customers are not charged for use.

In 2016, co-founders and brothers Arif Zuberi and Abid Zuberi, wanted to ease appointment booking for patients. According to the team, even though the product was useful, initially, doctors weren’t interested.

With rapid adoption of technology, they were able to bring thousands of doctors on board and currently have over 2000 specialists on their panel.

“Video consultations have served as a great way to bridge the gap between doctors and patients at a time when patients avoid going to the hospitals or leaving the house altogether,” says Mehwish Rana, Digital Marketing & Partnerships Lead at Oladoc. The app downloads have also increased significantly during covid-19.

Medical records can be uploaded by patients such as test reports and prescriptions. In case of video consultations, doctors can upload the prescriptions for the patients to view. This allows the doctors to view previous records during follow-up consultations.

Numerous other such independent consultation applications are widely available in Pakistan like Sehat Khanai, MarhamDoctHERs, SehatYad and Yaran-e-Watan.

Open Vent PK

Open Vent PK (OVP) is an open source technology solutions initiative, led by technology innovators Muhammad Umair Arif, Overall Team Lead and Dr Bilal Siddiqui, National R&D Facilitator. The project aims to manufacture low-cost ventilators for the country’s rural and urban population for as low as Rs300,000, whereas original ventilators can cost upto 10 times that amount.

“We were able to decrease the price by doing R&D for free and using the experts in this field for a cause rather than money. It is open-sourced so that everyone in the third world can benefit from it,” says Mohammad Umair Arif, Overall Team Lead, OVP while talking to MIT Technology Review Pakistan.

“Open source allows volunteers to work and contribute towards technology and ideas for the benefit of the world, while patients restrict innovation and technology acceleration by monopolising the space,” argues Arif.

A discussion with some medical doctors fueled the idea for this initiative. Arif realized that Pakistan lacks ventilators which are essential medical units, during the pandemic or otherwise.

“An estimated 3,000 ventilators were present in Pakistan as of March 2020, for a population of more than 200 million people. While Karachi had only about 700 vents,” he says.

The initiative started as a Facebook post on 21 March. The call for help went viral within hours and Arif found numerous volunteers through social media. With over 59 team core team members, and numerous volunteers based across the globe, Arif claims that the helping hands are growing by the day.

Covid Plasma Finder

The demand for convalescent plasma gave way to a black market, where survivors are seen selling their plasmas, which isn’t permissible under the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

To make finding plasma easier, safer, and free of cost for people, Danish Israr Khan, a final year student at UCP, and Co-Founder Techno Desert developed a website, after observing the current communication gap between the families of covid-19 patients and the recovered patients.

Launched on June 6, 2020, the website was promoted through social platforms. It is free of charge for donors and receivers. On average, Khan claims to have between 150-250 live users on the website where people can register as a patient or donor and reach out to registered patients to donate or donors for help.

“To nullify (the gap between donors and patients) we created this web-based platform for people’s ease and help them fight this disease,” says Khan.

ONLINE DELIVERY STORES

When the lockdown was first implemented in March, on-demand delivery apps gained momentum, especially grocery delivery because of their customer-friendly nature. By selecting from a menu, one can order any number of items on an app or a website, feed credentials and pay cash on delivery at one’s doorstep.

The groceries arrive fresh from the local mandi and are priced at the lowest possible rate with the utmost hygiene. Numerous local apps can be found on app stores, which also help in containing covid-19, maintaining social distancing by default while offering convenience.

One such app is ‘Deliver It – Online Grocery Store in Islamabad’. It started with home delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables in February 2020 and after the sharp rise in covid-19 cases in Pakistan, has now also added groceries to their list. During the past three months, they have delivered over 28,000 orders.

Usman Nazim, CEO Deliver It, wanted to reduce the gap in on-demand delivery services in the twin-cities and is glad that he is not without competition in the market, “With every passing day, more and more on-demand delivery services are being launched, which is a good sign as this will also strengthen the on-demand delivery ecosystem besides helping the people in need,” he says.

As Deliver It gains momentum, Nazim believes this pandemic is the perfect time for on-demand delivery companies to gain customer trust and test their strengths.

EDUCATIONAL APPS

Digital education not only offers a promising way for children to catch up with their studies in a fun and engaging way, but will also prevent students from dropping out. Taleemabad was developed on this idea, with the app using an appealing and interactive form of education for primary school children via videos, games and quizzes.

Taleemabad

The idea for Taleemabad was conceived after the founder, Haroon Yasin, identified problems in the national educational courses. They jotted down the dearth of engagement in schools, because of a lack of contextualization and learning in a foreign language,especially for students from rural areas.

The app was developed in 2018 by Orenda, an EdTech startup. It now accompanies academic learning with socio-emotional learning, with components on personal safety, health, hygiene, along with developing empathy and tolerance.

The app maps the education journey of each child and their competencies are analyzed. If a child struggles too much, a customer support resource from Taleemabad calls the parent.

During the pandemic, the app saw a strong surge in growth in April, when 35,000 new users joined the platform, compared to 2,500 in February.

“This means that we can begin to have quite a serious shot at reaching substantial numbers of children with television, or latent smartphone access,” says Daniyal Zia, a strategist at Orenda.

Zia further discusses numbers with MIT Technology Review Pakistan, stating that out of the 70.9 million children in Pakistan, close to 40.4 million have access to television, and 24.5 million have latent access, i.e. digital access through a parent’s mobile device, while close to one million children own their device.

Keeping this substantial number of students in mind, who can either be reached through television or their parent’s smartphones, Taleemabad’s work was picked by the Federal Government of Pakistan for daily broadcast on a special new channel called ‘Teleschool’ which reaches roughly 54 million people. The videos are also being aired on Punjab’s cable channel called ‘TaleemGhar’.

Gallup estimated the daily viewership of Teleschool to be around 1.5 million to 2 million for the children in the 5-15 year age bracket.

Phonics Fun

As health experts caution against reopening schools and provincial heads contemplate the idea, parents are having a hard time managing their child’s education at home. While schools have been closed for over three months now, parents are finding new ways to engage.

This allows for not only new tech innovations to take space, but also older ones to flourish.

Amna Mahmood wanted to be productive from the comfort of her home. In 2016, when her son started learning synthetic phonics she realised that there wasn’t enough material available on the topic and decided to step up. She made the ‘Phonics Fun’ app. “My goal was to make a phonics app that was a one-stop solution for children struggling with phonics and to guide their parents,” she says.

 

The popularity of her products, which have been installed in the UK, India, Pakistan, USA and Philippines, has increased during the pandemic in Pakistan.

She went on to code and publish other apps, including ‘Multiplication Flash Cards’ in 2017, an entertainment music app for children’s games like Pass the Parcel in 2018. She has also developed an app that teaches number recognition while keeping children entertained in farming activities in 2019, and most recently, a mental maths app that could help not only children, but also adults in March of 2020.

“The covid-19 situation has motivated me to continue making more educational apps and to focus more on inclusive education,” she says, adding that all apps are 100% free. She is currently working on an app for children struggling with Urdu.


Annam Lodhi is a freelance journalist.

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