Governments all over the world are increasingly relying on data, technology and innovation – not only to build their economies and sustain the social fabric of society, but also in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) has been supporting governments across Africa to harness the power of technology and data to achieve their priorities. In particular, two of the government’s recent priority initiatives supported by TBI demonstrate how Sierra Leone has used technology, data and innovation to both deliver on a key presidential priority and respond to Covid-19.
Fixing Sierra Leone’s education system is a perennial challenge. When independently tested in 2014, 97 per cent of students in class 2 scored zero in reading comprehension. More recently, a UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report found that only 12 per cent of junior secondary-school students across Sierra Leone score passing grades in English and maths.
In response, since 2018 the Government of Sierra Leone has allocated more than 20 per cent of the national budget to education, and President Julius Maada Bio has announced that Human Capital Development (HCD) is the priority of his administration and a key driver in Sierra Leone meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Accessible and Quality Education is the flagship initiative of his administration; as part of this initiative, the Free Quality School Education programme was introduced to ensure every child gets an education, irrespective of their background and status.
At the 2019 Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit, President Bio stated: “Our country defines human capital development in terms of equal and free access to quality education – that also involves skills training and innovation. We believe this makes the human being fit for purpose in the 21st century and all ready to fully partake in the global economy; health care – by strengthening our health care systems and services; and food security.” Photo credit: Getty Images
Recognising the importance of data and evidence, President Bio established the HCD Incubator in 2019 with the aim of designing and piloting innovative solutions that can be scaled up if successful. The Education Innovation Challenge (EIC) was launched in June 2019 in collaboration with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education’s Teaching Service Commission.
The Education Innovation Challenge
Innovative non-state education-delivery organisations were publicly invited to propose and test ideas for improving learning outcomes for English (literacy) and maths (numeracy) using a maximum implementation fund of $25 a year per student. Through a competitive process, five organisations’ innovations were selected for implementation in 170 government-assisted primary schools across the country. The data from the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI)’s Education Data Hub was used to select the participating schools, guided by criteria such as student enrolment levels and the physical location of schools.
Each of the five selected innovations has a different area of emphasis: pedagogy, remedial methods, parental involvement, use of tablet devices and community engagement. In addition, teacher training encompasses all the selected innovations. Each treatment school has been paired with a control school with a similar number of teachers and comparable student enrolment and terrain accessibility. Implementation has been accompanied by monitoring and assessments to ensure that the innovations are educational, and to assess whether they have potential for scaling up under the Free Quality School Education programme.
Photo credit: Grace Kargobai
Use of Data to Drive Implementation and Learning
A baseline assessment was conducted using the ASER literacy and numeracy tool in both treatment and control schools from late November to mid-December 2019 (340 schools in total). The results showed that only 23 per cent of Sierra Leonean students in Primary 6 (equivalent to US sixth grade) could read and comprehend a story. Similarly, only 3 per cent of Primary 2 (second grade) students could recognise three-digit numbers. Given the low baseline, there was potential for seeing progress in students’ literacy and numeracy by the end of the school year, six months later.
A midline assessment was conducted in the first quarter of 2021 following the first year of the EIC. This data is being analysed by the HCD Incubator and its data partners and will reveal the potential progress or decline experienced in the first year of implementation.
The programme is now in its second year of implementation. At TBI, we are excited about the EIC in Sierra Leone and looking forward to seeing what the data shows about the results of the first year. The programme was informed by the current administration’s effort to use technology, data and innovation to enable service delivery. We provided technical support to DSTI in formulating the HCD Incubator and designing the EIC. We also used our network of funders and central fundraising team to facilitate donor engagements.
Since the start of the Covid-19 response, quarantine has been one of the most effective measures to stop transmission of the virus. Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health was able to draw on the country’s past experience with Ebola in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, by the time Sierra Leone started recording cases in March 2020, the challenges related to quarantine, tracking of passengers and information sharing had begun to present themselves. In the weeks following the confirmation of the first case, there was a weekly average of 40 new confirmed cases in Sierra Leone.
As remote working became a necessity just as driving a robust public-health response remained a priority, TBI supported the government with establishing systems to enhance information sharing and communication among the different pillars of the response: surveillance, security, nutrition, risk communications, psychosocial matters, labs, case management, and drug and medicine supply. We supported the harmonisation of data on travellers in quarantine and contact tracing, ensuring that symptomatic contacts were tested in a timely manner and that all those in quarantine were tested before discharge at the end of the 14-day period. Working closely with the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NaCOVERC), we were able to address challenges as they arose and to support a system that later saw a regular flow of data and helped to overcome coordination challenges between the many players involved in the response.
Informing the App’s Development
At the same time, many contacts undergoing the 14-day quarantine complained about inadequate or inconsistent services. For many, it was outright uncomfortable not knowing if they would receive sufficient support while quarantining.
To improve monitoring and service delivery, the DSTI partnered with digital-solutions outfit Dimagi to develop a mobile application that enables service provision to be tracked on a daily basis.
As the government’s partner, we used our experience in combatting Ebola to provide technical input regarding the specifications and functionality of the application. As a result, decentralised monitoring officers were able to use the quarantine-compliance application to record the daily services administered to each home. The mobile application works offline and only requires internet connectivity to sync collected data. It is also GPS-capable to ensure monitoring officers are collecting data from legitimate quarantine locations.
Photo credit: James Fomba (Pillar Lead, Quarantine Pillar, NaCOVERC)
The data is then fed directly into the government’s public-health surveillance database, DHIS2, which enables central oversight of service provision for those in quarantine as well as decentralised management of that service provision. The data collected allows the government to track services provided, clearly identify lapses in service provision and work with the relevant pillars mentioned earlier to improve the process.
Facilitating a quick response to gaps in service delivery not only increases public confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic but also ensures greater citizen compliance with quarantine protocols. The application has helped the coordination team to identify the pillars not responding in a timely manner and prompt action has been taken to rectify sticking points.
First, the introduction of technology and innovation can be overwhelming if done all at once and this can lead to high resistance. For example, the quarantine app was met with objections from field staff when they had to abruptly move from recording data in a logbook to doing so in a mobile application. The reasons given included poor internet connectivity, having limited time to learn to use the application, and not having enough mobile devices to go around. A better approach would be to gradually introduce technology while phasing out the traditional method. With the quarantine app, we ended up developing a hybrid system in which security personnel captured the daily services provided by pillars in a logbook and the monitoring officers used that data to update the application. That way, the data was captured daily using the most practical technological solution and field staff were not overwhelmed by having to enter it in the app.
Second, it was important to understand the context of the country and build solutions with that context in mind. With the Covid-19 outbreak and the closure of schools, it was suggested that online learning materials could be developed to support student learning. Given our experience with Ebola, we knew radio was the better medium for reaching not only children in remote areas but also those in the cities given the poor internet connectivity nationwide in Sierra Leone. In some instances, the radio broadcasting medium was not enough. Some service providers had to develop pre-recorded learning materials that were uploaded to memory cards and distributed in communities they worked in, alongside compatible rechargeable devices for playing the recorded messages. Context also informed our decision to make sure the quarantine app had offline functionality, while ensuring no one collected random data offline and synced it to the server. (In the Sierra Leone context, some areas do not have internet connectivity, so offline functionality was incorporated with that in mind.) To that end, the app has an inbuilt GPS feature that registers a timestamp of the location from where the data was collected when offline.
Photo credit: Michael Duff
Third, it is essential to be iterative and adaptive in our approach towards developing technology and capacity-building for sustainability. The quarantine application, for example, was demonstrated to the leaders and district coordinators of the NaCOVERC before feedback was received and used to update the existing version of the application. Monitoring officers at district level were then trained in its use. The training was an opportunity to test the application and incorporate final feedback for its rollout. Subsequently, a series of refresher training sessions were conducted by DSTI and TBI at various points of the pandemic response to allow monitoring staff to become comfortable using the application. The application has formed an integral part of the country’s emergency-preparedness apparatus. NaCOVERC leaders at both national and district level can use the data generated to inform their daily updates on all relevant pillars and support their real-time involvement in the quarantine aspect of the Covid-19 response. As the third wave of Covid-19 hit Sierra Leone in the third quarter of 2021, the NaCOVERC’s ICT pillar conducted another refresher training session on use of the application, with support from DSTI.
TBI’s role is to support governments as they scope out, identify and deploy targeted programmes that will improve the lives of citizens. We have seen how technology can help improve service delivery and bridge the inequality gap, especially between urban and rural communities. We are proud to be able to continue to provide strategic and advisory support to the Government of Sierra Leone, and to support the strengthening of systems and coordination mechanisms in its journey to improve service delivery.
Musa Kpaka, Mathias Esmann, Martin Travers, Nomtha Sithole, Musa Komeh and PJ Cole also contributed to this article.