When Covid-19 bore its fangs in the Philippines, a group of youth built AI-powered chatbots on Facebook and Viber to facilitate remote self-assessments. It answers Covid-19 related questions and allows for video consultations – then transmits the data to local governments for monitoring.

Social listening and chatbots have become an important tool to conduct socio economic surveys, says Jonathan Hodder, Governance Specialist at UNDP Philippines, especially when face-to-face surveys are not possible.

Hodder and officials from the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) share three digital forces shaping the country’s Covid-19 response.

1. Data is key

The World Health Organisation set up COVIDKAYA, a case management system for the Philippines Department of Health (DOH). Healthcare workers can use the mobile app to track test specimens, communicate test results, and monitor quarantined contacts.

The UNDP is training the DOH and the Philippines’ Covid-19 taskforce on the use of data visualisation tools to better read the pandemic situation, says Hodder.

However, the Philippines’ data ecosystem remains “somewhat sparse”, he says, with data fragmented between and within institutions. Data from the private sector becomes “more important than ever, as they can bridge data gaps and lead to new policy insights,” he adds.

“This will be crucial in the coming months, especially when we consider the fragmentation of administrative datasets in the Philippines, and the need to produce ‘just in time’ policy recommendations,” Hodder says.

A common data platform will be very useful for the nation, he shared at GovInsider’s summit. The information should be made open and transparent, so researchers and civil societies can understand challenges faced. From there, they can partner with the private sector to resolve these challenges, Hodder said.

2. Digital signatures

“With most agencies on skeleton workforce or work from home arrangements, digital signatures reduce delays in signing important documents,” says a spokesperson for the Philippine National Public Key Infrastructure (PNPKI) team under the DICT.

Officials may sign documents anytime and anywhere without having to be in the office, the spokesperson adds.

Most agencies are currently using digital signatures for internal processes and transactions, and the PNPKI team is exploring use cases in e-government services and inter-agency transactions.

There is a lack of policies to enforce the use and acceptance of digital signatures, the spokesperson says, and a lack of awareness on the benefits of the technology. The PNPKI Team has been conducting online webinars on the legal basis and benefits of digital signatures to encourage its use among government agencies.

The DICT is also in “continuous coordination with different national government agencies” to implement digital signatures, the spokesperson says. It is also looking into updating existing policies and the PNPKI system to make it easier for applicants to apply and request for digital certificates.

3. Building trust and security

The pandemic has also accelerated digital payment efforts in the country, said Aida Yuvienco, Director for Management Information Systems Service at the DICT. The Philippines’ biggest digital payments provider, GCash, said its registered users soared 150 per cent in a month.

Many agencies are looking to DICT for tech support, Yuvienco said at the recent GovInsider summit. The department is assisting agencies with their cybersecurity and digitalisation efforts, she added.

Agencies need to issue their own cybersecurity policies in order to adapt to the pandemic, she said. Many government applications are still hosted in client servers, and should be migrated to the Web or cloud as soon as possible.

Digital is the way forward for the Philippines as it battles to lower infection rates and rebuild its economy. The UNDP Philippines’ and DICT’s efforts to harness data, build trust and security, and ramp up the use of digital signatures will be advantageous in the country’s recovery.