“How do I know that you are not showing the pictures from last year?” The chief minister was getting increasingly irate at the slideshows of pictures being shown as evidence that different government departments were performing activities to prevent another dengue epidemic in 2012. “These do not carry a time-stamp or show the place where these activities were actually performed.”
I came back from that meeting thinking that the biggest challenge for the government, ironically, is to effectively monitor its own work. Did the school teachers show up in class today? Did the drug inspectors actually visit the drug stores before filing their compliance reports? Did the district government staff use the anti-mosquito spray in the neighbourhood’s most vulnerable to a dengue outbreak? Did the sanitary workers fix the sewerage problem before monsoon?
Over the last two years, we, at the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), focused our energies on solving this problem. Our instrument of choice: smartphone. Historically, governments have invested billions in buying personal computers, laptops, data centres and fibre connectivity to power enterprise applications, but adoption has been a perennial challenge. The smartphone naturally solves many challenges at once: it is cheap (less than $100) and portable, intuitive to use, doesn’t require uninterrupted power, includes an embedded GPS device and has an always-on network connection. Most importantly, it has some social value embedded in it: people can use it to call family and friends, their children can play games on it. Unlike a PC, it is typically not handed over to some assistant in a back-office.
Our first application, developed literally over a weekend, was for the City District Government Lahore to track the activities of its dengue prevention field staff. Each worker was given a basic Android phone and our first application enabled the field workers to take a picture of a completed task, tag its GPS coordinates (geo-tag) and upload it to our dashboard. Our system time-stamped the incoming pictures and mapped them to the field worker’s phone numbers. Visualised on a Google map, we instantly started getting a feel of where and when the prevention activities were performed, or not.
As our anti-dengue campaign progressed, we bought 1,500 Android phones and kept refining our applications. The system was used by 17 different government departments and hundreds of field workers, and we have received over 200,000 pictures from all over Punjab. We developed more applications that enabled field entomologists to report Aedes Larvae clusters, as well as health workers to GPS tag the houses of the confirmed patients. With this data flowing in, we built a state-of-the-art epidemic early warning system, which statistically analysed the larvae reports and patient locations, and raised red flags wherever it detected a potential outbreak. This information was promptly shared with the local government to help it target its activities in the most vulnerable areas.
This system has led to a full-blown real-time disease surveillance system in Punjab, tracking all 26 WHO notifiable infectious diseases. Cross-verification of data from our dashboard has become a common practice in the government. The system has been featured by the MIT Technology Review, The Economist, NPR and BBC.
Encouraged by the success of our system for tracking disease outbreaks, the PITB has been working on numerous applications to help the government monitor its own work. Drug inspectors now carry our smartphones to report their visits to pharmacy outlets; visits of livestock EDOs are tracked using our smartphone applications; Lahore police uses our smartphone applications to analyse crime hotspots; agriculture extension workers report their activities using our smartphone applications; the Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC) uses smartphone applications to report its cleaning activities after Eidul Azha; this year, monitoring of Hajj facilities for pilgrims was done using our smartphone-based applications. Such is the adoption of our systems that over 25,000 geo-tagged activities were uploaded by the LWMC during the three-day Eid campaign a few days ago. And the chief minister Punjab personally reviewed this data, after every hour!
Going forward, we are developing a platform, in collaboration with the World Bank, which would enable people without an IT background to generate a monitoring application by simply dragging-and-dropping components. We are experimenting with increasingly advanced features. For example, our application for the irrigation department is designed such that the picture of a depth-metre is automatically processed to extract the level of water in a canal — making it difficult to hide the theft of irrigation water in tail canals.
Our model of mobile governance, or m-governance, is quickly taking root in Punjab. The rapid adoption, level of innovation and sophistication of our evolving systems is unprecedented in public sector organisations, especially in developing countries. In the coming year, seven major government departments will heavily start using our smartphone-based monitoring systems — employing over 30,000 smartphones. If we manage to keep our momentum, Pakistan may become one of the leading examples of innovations in m-governance.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2013.