July 30, 2020

No One Left Behind: Adapting Digital Programs during COVID

An interview with Mahadia Tunga, Tanzania dLab

“There’s a digital divide being witnessed in Africa,” said Mahadia Tunga, Co-Founder and Director of Capacity Development at the Tanzania Data Lab (dLab). While the divide is not new, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how differential access to the internet can shape who receives access to education, and when. As social distancing restrictions push day-to-day activities online, those who do not have consistent access to the internet and key health information are at risk of being left behind.

Tanzania was on a partial lockdown until the end of June with only 38.7% of the population having access to the internet. While containment measures were markedly less strict than many neighboring states, schools and universities were closed and citizens were encouraged not to leave their homes. Amidst the lockdown, Mahadia and her team looked for innovative ways to overcome this digital divide.

In 2018, Mahadia co-founded the dLab, with a focus on training community members in health data science and disseminating important health information through SMS. The dLab has pivoted to expand their existing online training modules to encourage its students to continue building their data science skills virtually. Yet while online modules have shown great promise by doubling participation, there are limits to who the modules can reach. “We have online materials, but only those who are already empowered with the internet and resources can access them. We are seeing how vulnerable people can become even more vulnerable,” Mahadia noted. 

To address this, Mahadia’s team developed the ‘Smart Girls’ program, which aims to reach young girls in rural settings who do not have the resources to attend in-person data science training. “We specifically targeted schools that might not have power and computers. We would take computers and train the girls, and during the holidays invite them to our organization’s computer lab.” This program encouraged girls who typically lack access to computer education, or a data science curriculum, the skills to pursue future careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). 

Yet the restrictions put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have essentially stripped the dLab’s access to these young girls; and in turn, has limited their ability to continue their data science education. Mahadia feels that not being able to reach these girls when they have even more time than normal to devote to their data science training is a huge missed opportunity.

While Mahadia’s team is still seeking a way to provide training to participants of the ‘Smart Girls’ program, the dLab has successfully adapted some of their other programs in the face of COVID-19. The ‘Code Like a Girl’ program, for example, which also teaches young girls coding and data science skills, has been able to thrive due to a partnership with telecommunications provider, Vodacom Tanzania. With their support, the dLab is able to provide free internet bundles and access to online learning modules. 

Another program the dLab has successfully pivoted is ‘Talk To Data’(#Sema_Na_Data), which provides targeted messaging and partners with social media influencers to disseminate information to young men who are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. With the onset of COVID-19, Mahadia knew that staying connected to this at-risk population was not only more important than ever but presented an opportunity. “People living with preconditions are more vulnerable to COVID… when COVID hit, we said ‘let’s find a way to be relevant.’” Now, Mahadia’s team has integrated COVID-19 messaging into their existing work, encouraging more young men to get tested for HIV so that they can know their status and take necessary precautions against the virus.

While Mahadia has been challenged to reorient her work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the essence of it remains unchanged. “We are trying to share an evidence-based message. Analyzing the data and digesting it in a simple way so that people can understand the impact of COVID.” “But most importantly,” Mahadia continued, “we are telling a story that people can relate to their own activity, their own work, their own health. We are trying to get those big numbers into a level that everyone in the community can understand.” The messages may have changed since the start of the pandemic, but Mahadia remains committed to reaching the most vulnerable in her community.

To learn more about the Tanzania dLab, follow them on Twitter @dLabTz and Facebook