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Digital transformation in the age of Covid-19

Statement by Minister of Regional Development and Digitalisation, Linda Hofstad Helleland, at the high-level virtual event 'Digital transformation in the age of Covid-19', 24 February 2021.

A recently published government White Paper on “Digital transformation and development policy” establishes that Norway will work to ensure that developing countries are able to take part in the opportunities that innovation and new technologies provide.

Digital technology and solutions form the basis for the communication, collaboration, and knowledge building needed to deal with a global crisis and attaining the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. We need to step up efforts to build back, greener and digital.

Following the recommendation of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, Norway established a broad Alliance to facilitate the creation and sharing of digital public goods, Norway, together with Sierra Leone, UNICEF and the Indian think tank iSPIRT.

However, because many governments lack the financial and human resources to develop, discover or procure the solutions that best address their country’s needs, they are often left dependent on suboptimal solutions with political and/or commercial strings attached, even where a preferable open source solution already exists

Norway has a longstanding tradition of investing in public goods that have both national and international users – that is, public goods meant to serve the entire world.

We bring this approach also into our work on digital transformation for sustainable development, through our work to advance digital public goods.

When the first cases of COVID-19 arrived in 2020, it became immediately clear that we need a comprehensive data system for monitoring disease outbreak.

Health personnel were stuck using Excel spreadsheets or even pen and paper to track the pandemic’s spread worldwide.

We had to find ways to collaborate and share data and knowledge.

In Sri Lanka, they use a system called DHIS2 (District Health Information System) as one of their health information systems.

Sri Lanka’s first suspected case of the novel coronavirus / COVID-19 was registered on 27 January 2020. Within just two days, HISP Sri Lanka had created a new DHIS2 Tracker instance specifically for COVID-19 surveillance in Sri Lanka.

The system was operational at the country’s airports and HISP Sri Lanka was providing training and support.

Within 3 months it was in use in more the 20 countries and further developed, and today its used by more than 57 countries.

All Norwegian municipalities have since may 2020 also had access to this tool.

District Health Information Software 2 (DHIS2) is an open source, web-based health management information system (HMIS).

Today, DHIS2 is the world’s largest health management information platform. Approximately 2.4 billion people live in countries where DHIS2 is used. Including NGO-based programs, DHIS2 is in use in more than 100 countries.

And - DHISP2 is a Digital Public good.

DHIS2 software development is a global collaboration managed by the Health Information Systems Program (HISP) at the University of Oslo (UiO).

It’s a global network comprised of 13 in-country and regional organizations, providing day-in, day-out direct support to ministries and local implementers of DHIS2.

Digital Public Goods are open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable best practices, do no harm and are of high relevance for attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.

These Digital public goods can be particularly important for enabling countries to drive their own digital transformation processes, and to work together to find common solutions to common problems.

Beyond the immediate health crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic has also further highlighted the importance of social safety nets and effective systems for financial transfers to be able to respond rapidly in times of crisis.

The underlying digital systems, such as foundational digital identity and digital payment platforms play a critical role for ensuring this, and countries all over the world are therefore seeking to improve or create such systems. To help meet this need in developing countries, Norway has become the first bilateral donor to the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP). MOSIP was developed in close cooperation with the World Bank as a digital public good, and other funders include philanthropic donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Digital transformation will not happen by only focusing on the technologies. Technical assistance and training locally are also needed, particularly if we want real country ownership of these processes.

That’s why Norway supports initiatives like ITU and Ciscos  Digital Transformation Centres (DTC) in Ghana. This project supports activities to train youth in digital skills. In particular, it supports activities aimed at scaling the delivery of digital skills training – and hence digital literacy - in local communities and among marginalized groups. 

However, digital technologies can do real harm – both intended and unintended. We therefore need to ensure that principles of openness, and the protection of human rights and democracy are enshrined both in how technologies are designed and in relevant policy and regulatory frameworks that guide their implementations.

One of Norway's approaches is to fund and professionally support initiatives such as the Cybersecurity Capacity Center for Southern Africa (C3SA). This is a regional center for capacity building in digital security for South Africa (C3SA). The center is a collaborative project with local, regional and international knowledge organizations and academic institutions. It will help to develop local knowledge and expertise so that the countries in the region can better meet the digital challenges they face, especially now.

Our multilateral partners, like UNDP and the World Bank, play a crucial role in enabling countries to take advantage of the opportunity in technology, and to ensure it is harnessed as a force for good. Norway strongly supports and commends the important work that is being done at country level. To accelerate and deepen the pace of the digital transformation, we encourage a necessary reform and re-think of policy and procurement support and training that can enable more countries to adopt and deploy digital public goods that address critical development needs. We welcome the increasingly close collaboration we are seeing through the Digital Public Goods Alliance in these areas.

I also want to commend the role that UNDP is taking in highlighting and addressing specific issues related to digital technologies, democracy and human rights, such as hate speech and misinformation. Democratic institutions and the protection of fundamental rights have in recent years come under unprecedented pressure from technologies that accentuate polarization and destroy the fabrics of societies. We need to regain control over this narrative, and I hope technology can also help us do that.

I look forward to an interesting dialogue here today, and want to thank UNDP and Singapore for hosting this important event.