As African airlines get back to international skies this month for the first time since March, their commitment towards minimizing the possibility of an upsurge in Covid-19 infections will be critical in jump starting the air travel business.
To help manage the uncertainty among passengers about the health safety of international flights, the African Union (AU) Open Corridor Initiative is supporting a collaboration among pan-African private sector institutions to launch a Consortium to deploy and manage a digital platform that will perform bio-screening and tracing of contacts across borders.
Dubbed PanaBIOS, the application, which can be accessed on the web or downloaded from Panabios.org, is already being utilized in Ghana to manage congestion in workplaces and other high-risk locations while enabling digitizing of cross—border travel health clearance to suppress disease importation and transmission.
A pilot was initiated on June 1 in Ghana as part of the West African country's Trancop Initiative and then formally launched on July 5 by the African Union Department of Trade and Industry together with a consortium of Pan-African institutions ahead of African Integration Day on July 7.
PanaBIOS was described as the "reference archetype" of a protocol - Digital Africa Biosurveillance & Bioscreening for International Travel (DABBIT) - developed to support the AU’s Open Corridors Program.
Supporters of the effort include Pan-African Institutions like the African Economic Zones Organisation, AfroChampions, the African Organisation for Standardisation, Koldchain BioCordon, and national government initiatives, with the Ghanaian government’s Trancop program leading the way.
Presidential Advisor on Health in Ghana, Dr Anthony Nsiah-Asare, said the Ghanaian government began piloting the use of the application to inform decisions on reopening businesses.
“The government took a decision for strategic targeted testing. We started with schools and churches. We have to reopen and to do that we need a system where we can get real-time data at the borders and inside airports.
“Am sure every country will like it because nobody wants importation of the disease. All cases in Africa were imported and if we are not careful, this easing of businesses could lead to more importation of the virus into Africa,” he said.
The technology has the capacity to monitor and model human congestion, thereby mapping how the virus is spreading.
“In so doing PanaBIOS alerts people who have been exposed to an infected person and advise them to get tested. It allows users to access test results and gives them certificates to allow cross-border travel.” The technology is free for use by all African countries.
Kenya, an active member of the AU, stands to benefit from the solution, especially given the country's strong dependence on tourism and the aviation and regional logistics sector.
At the launch of PanaBIOS during African Integration Week, AU Commissioner of Trade & Industry, Albert Muchanga, emphasized the importance of solutions like PanaBIOS keeping the African Continental Free Trade Agreement on track, after it was unceremoniously postponed from its planned start on July 1st 2020.
It is not clear what the starting date would be now but Commissioner Muchanga indicated that his Department was entering into many partnerships with multiple Pan-African stakeholders to ensure that the free trade bloc gets going as early as possible.
TECHNOLOGY THE SAVIOR
It is looking as if technology may well save the day as without free movement of people, currently blocked by the pandemic, a free trade area is simply impractical.
However, according to keynote speaker on AU matters Prof Patrick Lumumba, Kenya needs to understand it first before thinking of any implementation.
“We need to see the application and comprehend how it works,” he told the Nation.
But the use of Big Data in health data in decisioning has been effectively used by developed countries such as Germany, United Kingdom and Israel, leading to resumption of businesses, as digital solutions keep monitoring the Covid-19 situation in those countries.
Timothy Oriedo, a data scientist in Kenya and founder of Predictive Analytics Lab is optimistic that the use of live data to trace contacts could help control any rise in new infections.
“Contact monitoring can be used in tracking social behavior mobility and the movement of persons from one region to another. It can also control community interactions, especially those who use public Wi-Fi hotspots. Telling them there is an infected person in their amidst could inspire social change.
“Through alerts to such people, this can be a preventative measure towards containing the virus,” he told this writer.
Whenever big data analytics and crowd-level insights come to play, decision makers are always interested in a large number of people, but many of them do not own a smartphone with an embedded GPS.
But by collaborating with telcos, the solution can serve even those who use feature phones that cannot support the app.
This was dramatically illustrated this week when the Ghanaian Electoral Authorities announced that PanaBIOS will be used for "virtual queuing" to reduce the congestion that has been building up at voter registration centres.
For contact tracing, however, relying on feature phones can be a bit challenging.
The accuracy of using the cell tower method, experts say, is related to the density of phone masts since there are more towers in the cities and fewer in rural areas.
“While GPS has an accuracy of less than 5 meters, in the case of network-based positioning we are talking about hundreds of meters and even more in rural areas. As for tools, the next step should be to build a method or pipeline for accessing and aggregating these secondary supporting data points that the mobile operators use for their service provision,” says James Claude, CEO of Global Voice Group.
But in implementing such a program, Mr Oriedo points out, organisations involved must protect the data privacy of the persons being monitored.
“Respective partners must adhere to the Kenya Data Protection law, by giving priority to data consent and avoiding data sharing for commercial use,” he asserted.
Mr Claude expounds that the access to mobility data is crucial for governments and decision-makers, since it can help in the predictive analysis on mobility trends, for an ample range of purposes.
“Mobile data provides actionable information through population mobility insights. When we make a call or send a message, the mobile phone constantly exchanges a lot of technical information with the Mobile Network Operators’ cell towers and other core systems. One of the parameters the network knows about the mobile phone is its location. When a mobile phone moves around, the area changes and we can say with certainty that this phone is no longer stationary, but moving,” he explained.
But whenever designing and implementing new systems in different nations, technical and procedural challenges are experienced.
“It is worth noting that there are numerous regulatory aspects to be examined for each country, which are strongly related to data access and data privacy. These would be the crucial aspects which require full attention, even before the implementation phase arrives,” he remarked.