As citizens in Senegal come together to fight misinformation and support healthcare workers, more participation demands more accountability.
In the weeks after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Senegal, claims circulated on social media that the coronavirus wasn’t real, that it didn’t affect Black people, that the virus couldn’t survive in heat, or that neem leaves would cure the disease.
In response, citizens launched the #Fagarungirmuccu initiative in early March to combat online misinformation. (In Wolof, Fagarungirmuccu means “warning to protect ourselves.”) It all started with a tweet by @abdourami, hoping to rally young people for the benefit of their community. Volunteers debunk fake news and provide useful information using hashtags such as #Fagarungirmuccu, #JögCiCovid19, #DaanCovid19, #Covid19.
By May, 80 members had come together from throughout Senegal as volunteer humanitarian workers. #Fagarungirmuccu collaborates with the digital response team of the Ministry of Health, the Health Emergency Operations Centre (COUS) and the National Health Education and Information Service (SNEIPS).
Fagarungirmuccu is just one of many civic technology projects in Senegal. AfricTivistes, the League of African Cyber-Activists for Democracy, defines civic technology – or civic tech – as all processes, tools and technologies used to improve relations between citizens and government. Civic tech also aims to improve the provision of government services and may be developed by companies or non-profit organizations, or even by the government itself.
A report by the Knight Foundation on Civic Tech in 2013 classifies the various Civic Tech projects into two main categories:
- Opening up government, which includes transparency of data, facilitating the voting process, mapping and visualisation of public data, making use of public data and the co-creation of laws and government decisions
- Citizens’ participation, which concerns the development of citizens’ networks, the engagement of local communities, crowdfunding and sharing citizens’ data
Since the pandemic, many Covid-related civil tech initiatives have been launched, but an urgent need to define and map civic tech in Senegal remains.
Civic tech in Africa
The civic technology movement in Africa has existed for over a decade, according to a 2018 report from the French Media Development Agency (CFI). The report surveyed the state of civic technology in several African countries: Benin, Kenya, Tunisia, and Senegal. It analyzed four different indicators: connectivity, laws in force that support the development of civic tech projects, and the annual Freedom House report on the political rights and civil liberties situation in the countries.
The report found that the civic tech movement in Africa is growing at different speeds because of the different regulatory contexts in various countries. Several states are struggling to consolidate progress made in these four areas, yet face the possibility of ending up back at square one overnight. All it takes is an election or a change of leadership to lose all the headway that has been made.
These fluctuating freedom indices are depicted usefully on the below map, which shows a comparison of the development of freedoms in the continent between the years 2018 and 2019.
The prohibitive cost of Internet access can remain an obstacle as well. Despite efforts to bring prices down in many African countries, these reductions are still not in line with the recommendations of the International Telecommunication Union, which advises that the cost of 1 GB of mobile data be estimated at 2% of monthly income per head of population. Currently, most African countries are above this 2% mark, which does not make it easy for civic technology to thrive. This is illustrated by the below graph, which compares costs in Senegal between 2015 and 2019.
Senegalese civic tech during Covid-19
Despite these barriers, Senegal has a long history of supporting civic tech. In 1998, Senegal became one of the first countries to put its electoral register online (on the website of the Ministry of the Interior). During the 2012 presidential elections, a group of community of bloggers, led by Cheikh Fall, created the citizens’ monitoring platform #Sunu2012. And during the presidential elections in 2019, the association WA MBEDMI set up a citizens’ electoral information form called #SenegalVote.
In recent years, we have acquired myriad communication and publication channels; we are no longer enslaved by state media and we are less and less subject to censorship as a result of online media at the service of democracy. Our thoughts and ideas can be shared easily, anywhere in the world. Today, nearly 9 million of us in Senegal are on the Internet, mostly connected by our mobile phones, which have gradually replaced radio and television and govern the majority of our social activities. And, during the pandemic, researchers, citizens, and the government alike have collaborated to offer new tools.
Engineers from the Polytechnic School of Dakar (ESP) created the SunuCity (meaning “our city” in Wolof) mobile app. It backs up the work of the Ministry of Health by publishing official information and lets users report any sanitary incident or risk of exposure verbally, by uploading photographs or by geolocation.
In the realm of healthcare, the State Information Agency (ADIE) launched Dr. Covid, a WhatsApp virtual doctor that provides useful information and answers questions about coronavirus. It helps the Ministry of Health and Social Action of Senegal inform its citizens.
There is Dr CAR, the robot built by students of ESP (the Polytechnic School of Dakar), which takes the temperatures of patients in quarantine and delivers medication and meals to them, and the artificial ventilator brought to the world by the teacher-researchers of EPT. There are automatic hand gel dispensers, protection visors made in FabLabs. And citizens also launched the SN 3D COVID 19 collective produce tools to support healthcare workers (protective visors, alcohol hand gels, ventilators, etc.).
Finally, researchers from the Gaston Berger University (UGB) of Saint Louis collected data for two months and put together an algorithm to predict cases based on historical data. This work makes it possible to predict how the virus will evolve in Senegal, which is helpful for the Ministry of Health.
Privacy and greater accountability
Covid-19 has shown again that technology can be a powerful tool for citizens from all walks of life. However, technology also often has its downsides, including concerns over privacy.
The elite no longer have a monopoly on technology. It is becoming increasingly accessible, even to this largely illiterate population, which has used it daily since the advent of mobile telephony and the two Vs – voice and video. This exposes us to even more mass surveillance. We can no longer live without these gadgets, services and platforms, which are very important in our lives, but make us more vulnerable by the same token.
There are countless instances of comments shared within private groups on WhatsApp putting the person who made them in prison. One such example is the case of Amy Collé Dieng, a Senegalese singer who ended up in prison for “offending the head of state” and “distributing fake news” following the disclosure of her personal data. Our personal data are increasingly being collected with no regard for our right for them to be treated in accordance with the law 2008-12 of 25 January 2008 on the protection of personal data.
More mobile apps and web platforms to facilitate our commitment and participation as citizens means more accountability in writing the programs and in the algorithms used to process our personal data. Civic technology in Senegal is now an eight-year-old child who is already starting to show her potential. She has a bright future in front of her if she is registered and officially recognised as a 100% Senegalese citizen. Unfortunately, there are currently many Civic Tech initiatives that are not recognised as such.
There is an urgent need to define and map civic tech in Senegal, which will be a first step towards better collaboration between stakeholders, citizens and States.
This article was first published in French on sn.boell.org.