Exclusive: Georgia is using video chat and sign language for inclusive services

By Joshua Chambers and Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Sesili Verdzadze, Head of Innovations at ServiceLab, R&D Department, Ministry of Justice, Georgia.

In an emergency, seconds and minutes matter a great deal. But even making a call for an ambulance can prove daunting for the disabled.

This is why Georgia has redesigned its 112 Emergency Service to be more accessible for people with disabilities, including the deaf.

“One of the priorities in government in Georgia is that we have to have all services accessible for people with different disabilities,” says Sesili Verdzadze, Head of Innovations at ServiceLab in the R&D Department of the Ministry of Justice.

Skype and sign language

Emergency Service 112 has turned to video chat and has hired full-time sign language interpreters to help disabled citizens, she says.

The disabled community had requested a device with three large buttons, each connected to police, fire/rescue and medical service, that enables them to speed dial in a hurry. “But it was quite expensive for the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” she notes.

After further rounds of discussions and engagement, it surfaced that “just a simple solution like Skype could do the job” instead. The emergency service has incorporated video calls as part of their process, and full-time sign language interpreters are on hand to facilitate conversations between first responders and citizens.

Georgia’s emergency service employees were also trained in sign language so they could take calls from deaf users. “So these kinds of simple solutions save the day,” Verdzadze continues.

In 2016, the service opened a centre in Rustavi, a post-industrial city on the outskirts of the capital Tbilisi, and launched a mobile app that locates local emergency calls and sends silent alarms.

That same year, the service won the Innovative Service award from the European Emergency Number Association. It was recognised for its efforts to ensure the entire community, including people with special needs, were able to get help when they needed it.

Bringing citizens into the fold

This inclusive approach has been replicated across various online services developed by the Public Service Development Agency. Citizens may now apply for passports, ID cards and birth certificates via Skype, Verdzadze says.

Georgia is undergoing a public administration reform. Verdzadze’s unit in particular is responsible for introducing user-centric design and accessibility into the service design and delivery component of government, she says.

The ServiceLab has plans to scale out to local governments, and as a first step, has set up an innovation hub in Rustavi. “It is at the mayor's office level, very local; engaging citizens and working with them very actively,” she explains. These hubs can serve as platforms for government to co-create with citizens.

Through her work, Verdzadze hopes to change mindsets in government, and encourage closer relationships and communication between them and citizens. “Most of the government representatives and officials think that they know better what people know and what people want, so they developed services that they think would be right for them. But when you actually talk to the citizens, they don't need this service at all, it is just a waste of government money,” she points out.

The solution is to double down on engagement, and create opportunities for both sides to get together and come up with great ideas. “We've had workshops where ministers are using post-it notes and markers, designing things with students,” Verdzadze says.
“We've had workshops where ministers are using post-it notes and markers, designing things with students.”
Elsewhere, countries are prioritising inclusivity, so that the disabled, elderly and those with poor English still have the same experience when accessing government services. Singapore’s digital services are being built to be ‘inclusive by design’, transcending language barriers and varying technical proficiency levels. New Zealand is looking at improving affordability, building skills and providing access to digital services to people in rural areas.

Georgia’s ServiceLab is only four years old, but has already trialled some innovative new approaches. Innovation is not complete without inclusivity, Verdzadze believes - making lives better regardless of a citizen’s circumstances.