The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the world to increasingly rely on digital technology to survive. Children are using online platforms to learn. People are using digital payment software to send money to their loved ones, and local businesses are entering the digital space to deliver goods and services that are no longer offered in person.

The pandemic and our subsequent response have shown just how important digital development is. Programs that were initially planned for in-person implementation have shifted to digital and there is now, more than ever, a need for development practitioners to understand the risks and benefits of digital programming. If not executed with considerations in mind for the most vulnerable populations, digital interventions can and will create greater inequalities for the populations they seek to help.

In April, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched its first Digital Strategy to assist staff, partners, and programs to navigate exactly these sorts of challenges. The Digital Strategy outlines USAID’s commitment to mitigate humanitarian and development challenges using digital technology and by strengthening open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystems. The strategy emphasizes closing the gender digital divide, improving digital literacy, and enhancing investments in digital technology to help achieve these commitments.

16697496505_648084a306_o.jpgPicture from USAID's Digital Flickr. Credit: Chris Burns/USAID, February 2015.

How to Responsibly Invest in Digital Technology

As digital tools proliferate the development sector, we must ensure that the tools are strong and that policies and infrastructure in place support the use of such technology and address inequalities. Eight topics to consider, built on existing USAID tools and lessons learned from the Ebola response, when assessing a proposal with a digital intervention are:

  1. Start with the Development Challenge: What is the specific local COVID-19 challenge we are trying to solve?

  2. Ensure local ownership and engage with relevant stakeholders: Is it important for host-country institutions to be able to manage the digital intervention? Would your intervention inadvertently displace the efforts of local actors?

  3. Assess the landscape and reuse and improve: Is the digital intervention relevant to the local context? Can the proposal be modified to reuse existing platforms that are already in place? How can local laws and protocols on technology and data be accomodated?

  4. Design with the user: How will users be consulted during the design process (ex. features, content, governance) when social distancing is emphasized? How can the system be adapted around users, rather than forcing users to accommodate (ex. what are users’ existing media and communication preferences)?

  5. Ensure Data Privacy and Security: How are we protecting data, especially sensitive data, during the response to COVID-19? Who owns and has access to the data being collected?

  6. Is the total cost of ownership realistic? Does the system need to be affordable to local stakeholders? Does the budget include all necessary costs for the activity to quickly and successfully deploy to address COVID-19 (ex. system configuration, deployment, training, user testing, transaction, service, and licensing fees)?

  7. Will it sustain or scale? Could collaboration with local institutions, donors, and the private sector increase the possibility of scaling during and after the response to COVID-19?

  8. Is it open and interoperable? Do current conditions warrant an open-source license, such an Open Data Commons or Creative Commons license? Is it important for the proposed solution to be interoperable with other locally used systems?

Technology can be key to COVID-19 response and recovery and USAID programming can help to support host country institutions asses relevant technology proposals. Download this short guide for more information on responsible investments in digital technology.

Two Key Responsible Data Considerations

In addition to following general responsible data best practices, there are two areas where international development practitioners should have a special focus when deploying digital tools to support programmatic impact: digital gender divide and digital literacy.

1. Digital Gender Divide

The gender divide is prevalent in all facets of development and digital work is no exception. Globally, women are 14 percent less likely to own mobile phones and 43 percent less likely to engage online. As development professionals increasingly rely on digital services to provide lifesaving information, implement programs, and disseminate tools, women continue to be left behind, as they have less access and ability to use digital services.

Key considerations development practitioners should ask themselves when designing a digital intervention for COVID-19 response include:

  • Will your digital intervention reach vulnerable populations and is it responding to their needs?
  • How can you better use digital tools to ensure that inequalities are not exacerbated in this crisis?
  • How can you ensure all gender identities are being included across the data lifecycle: collection, analysis, sharing?
  • How can you work directly with community leaders to create compelling cases for women’s technology use—under what conditions would women be allowed to use the Internet?
  • Could the private sector provide expertise in gender dynamics around technology use and COVID-19 response?

To better understand how efforts to mitigate the gender digital divide can exacerbate the gender digital divide, increase online and physical harm and exclude women and girls from data collection, analysis, and sharing, download this short guide.

2. Digital Literacy

As people increasingly rely on digital tools to support work, education, and delivery of information, ensuring marginalized populations have equitable access to digital literacy skills and training is critical, particularly during a global pandemic. To strengthen local ecosystems, combat misinformation, develop effective content, and accelerate innovative response, development practitioners must ensure that the entire population is able to safely and securely consume digital resources that are developed. Pertinent questions include:

  • Are you ensuring equitable access to digital literacy training, particularly to marginalized populations (e.g. women, persons with disabilities, rural communities)?
  • Are you training and building upon existing infrastructure?
  • How can digital literacy efforts better support your global/regional/national COVID-19 response?
  • Is your activity duplicative and/or displacing the work of other institutions?
  • Does your activity address and seek to overcome gaps in digital use and skills?

When designing COVID-19 response programs that include digital literacy, download this short guide to avoid increased inequality and ensure that long term response and recovery efforts are made.

More COVID Considerations

USAID is committed to helping staff, as well as development partners, navigate both the risks and rewards associated with digital tools—particularly in the face of a global pandemic. The Agency has developed a series of COVID-19 considerations on digital payments, data collection, data privacy, cybersecurity, the gender digital divide, digital literacy, and the digital investment tool to inform staff about the opportunities and risks presented by digital tools in the context of COVID-19.

Rashel Rabinovich is a Digital Strategy Support Specialist for the DAI-led Digital Frontiers project. This post first appeared on ICTWorks.