Proposals for improvement of Digital Infrastructure to meet post-pandemic challenges
Posted on May 12th, 2020

Dr. Gamini Padmaperuma

Background

It was clearly observed how the existing digital infrastructure was over-stretched and overwhelmed during this difficult time, which led to computer system and website overloads or crashes. Also, long queues for securing necessary food provisions, medicines, etc. were observed. All public and private educational institutions were closed which disrupted most of the educational programmes in the country.

It was also observed that the distribution of various government relief packages (such as provision of Rs. 5000 allowance) was met with some drawbacks due to issues relating to identification of individuals who are really entitled.  Provision of other government services such as issuance of curfew permits, etc. was also a phenomenal task that the Police Department had to face with.

Further, parents were concerned and anxious about the missed classes of their children while university students were worried about their missed lectures. Continuation of academic work of millions of pupils and students has become a concern of the whole nation.

The Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), the apex ICT institution of the Government, has done and is doing a great deal in building digital infrastructure for making Sri Lanka a knowledge-based society through digitally empowered citizens. It has undertaken many projects for fulfilling the above mandate given to them. Just as a response to Covid-19 Outbreak, ICTA has developed and launched many computer systems, databases, applications to facilitate emergency government services, communication and collaboration tools, platforms for digital education, etc. The country is now faced with many more challenges based on the problems posed by the current pandemic which are different in intensity and nature to those encountered under normal conditions. These problems need long term solutions so that future emergency situations can be handled more readily and effectively.

His Excellency the President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has decided to implement all digital technology services and technology projects under the supervision and management of the ICT Agency and to bring the agency under the Ministry of Defence. This is a clear indication of the level of priority given by the Government to build the necessary digital infrastructure and launch necessary projects to make Sri Lanka a digitally advanced country. 

Strategies and actions

A well-established digital infrastructure by way of e-commerce, e-governance, e-health, e-learning, etc. could help face situations similar to the current one more effectively and safely. It is very important to assess the current capacity of country’s digital infrastructure; e-commerce, e-health, e-governance, e-learning, etc. and expand and enhance them to a level that citizens in all corners of the country have access to a sufficiently reliable Internet facility. Availability of such facility would enable efficient handling of relevant transactions of citizens through e-commerce, e-health, e-governance, e-learning, etc. This will create opportunities for citizens to avail the services of businesses such as pharmacies and supermarkets through e-commerce, health services through e-health, government services through e-governance, online learning through, e-learning, etc. with minimal need to meet face-to-face.  Avoidance of meetings and maintenance of social distance are primary concerns under situations such as current pandemic.

Development of Internet facilities and providing their access to the citizens countrywide is only half the battle. What is equally important is to prepare sound systems and applications to facilitate transactions between concerned parties such as business to consumer, business to business, government to citizens, educational institutions to students etc. Development of systems and applications need detailed analysis of existing systems and transactions, interrelationship between business/government processes and procedures, etc. This effort should not be a mere computerization of existing transactions. For example, business processes, either in public sector or private sector need to be thoroughly analysed. Efforts need to be made to simplify the processes and make them more efficient. It is therefore important to look at the existing practices with an open mind and challenge each step in the processes for its relevance, necessity, timeliness, etc. This could entail reengineering of business processes and disruptive innovations involving radical changes to current business practises.

It is also important to develop comprehensive databases consisting of biographical and other data such as income levels, professions or trade skills, etc. of all citizens. This could help many activities of the government in planning development and aid programmes, distribution of relief packages, implementation of strategic development programmes, etc. As primary information of citizens are already available through Persons Registration Department, Elections Commission, etc., its expansion to include more details could be addressed with relative ease.

E-health could be used to maintain patient records such as prescribed medicines, diagnosed illnesses, residential addresses, phone numbers, etc. so that distribution of medicine could be handled with ease during a crisis situation such as the current one. Also, consultations with doctors at a remote location could be arranged through video links, etc. thus avoiding the need to travel to a hospital.

E-Learning also can be developed as an alternative or complementary medium to face-to-face teaching and learning. Here again, proper need analyses and instructional designs need to be made with proper academic input to make the teaching and learning effective. Audio and video clips, discussion forums, timely feedback, group work and presentations, continuous assessments, progress monitoring, online tutoring are some of the important features of e-learning. This medium could also be used to train and retrain people with relative ease and speed.

It is therefore proposed that a consultative body under the leadership of ICTA with representatives from relevant fields in both public and private sector be formed to look into the above issues in terms of strategy, direction, technology and infrastructure, systems development, change management, implementation, etc. Use of digital technology can be looked at from both national and sectorial levels, which again are integrated to form the national economy. Experts from economic, health, education, business, agriculture, engineering and construction, public administration, etc. fields can be called upon to work along with IT experts from ICTA and other related agencies to identify, prioritise and analyse areas that need to be digitalized in keeping with national policies and programmes. What is very important is not to just computerize the existing manual processes, also referred to as paving the cow path, but to look at each process afresh and develop direct, simple and efficient processes that can be computerized and integrated with other similarly developed processes in the same sector or otherwise.

Author:

Dr. Gamini Padmaperuma is a Chartered Professional Engineer, an Honorary Fellow Member of IESL and a former Senior Lecturer of OUSL. He can be contacted at gamini_pad@hotmail.com

One Response to “Proposals for improvement of Digital Infrastructure to meet post-pandemic challenges”

  1. Sirih Says:

    I have been working with the SL company that got awarded the ID card project. Its quite complex and each citizen need to be met with ID verified and photo taken.. The moment 2015 UNP came on board they stopped it. I believe we have so many illegal minorities in SL and this need to weed out via national ID and also link medical card and also link the ID to the tax office, welfare office etc…
    GR is heavily into this when he was at Defence and hope we can finally finish this and with the new board from the govt. I can see that already some mischief happening. For the national security and also gathering real time data on our people, this will help with unemployment and benefits and this is the only way to get a proper picture and avoiding other defence related issues.
    Finally we can link this to our immigration database since same company developed the immigration software in SL.

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