Digital tools have an important role to play in helping populations and economies outlast the pandemic. Remote-working, contactless transactions, government digital service delivery are just some elements that may become our ‘new normal’.
Digitalization is not a new arena for Uzbekistan; over the last seven years the country has explored ways to use ICT to reform public administration and boost economic growth. In early 2020, digital economy was prioritized as an important foundation for its future development. Digitalization can help Uzbekistan overcome major hurdles as it integrates into the global economy: both its physical constraints as a doubly land-locked country, and the information gaps and technical barriers to increasing prosperity.
The Uzbekistan government already recognized the power of digitalization in transforming society, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made that transformation essential. As the pandemic arrived, policy changes were quickly put in place to accelerate the digital transformation. Digital economy and e-governance were prioritized, and there was a new readiness to invest in broadband infrastructure and build solid foundations for digital education and an IT ecosystem, as well as to bring the services and assistance people need straight into their homes.
Building on the digital foundations
Having played an important role in supporting the Government to build foundations of e-government and digitally transform public administration, we at UNDP worked again in partnership to add existing digital services in response to COVID-19 challenges.
Ensuring uninterrupted access to public services through digital tools was critical. UNDP promoted the new E-notary portal, allowing people to access full information about notary services without needing to visit an office. 26,000 people used it from April to July 2020, and the next step is to fully digitize notary transactions. Judiciary processes have kept turning via the E-SUD system, while the established Telegram channel for a free legal clinic became a lifeline for people needing access to justice.
UNDP has also helped enhance the content and functionality of Uzbekistan’s core digital platform. A new ‘Life Events’ section provides user-friendly information about benefits, rights and services regarding key life moments (from starting a family or giving birth, to getting an education and finding a job, to applying for a pension and receiving disability support), alerts for citizens and businesses about the status of their applications and claims, and other legally important information. Since the platform’s launch in May 2020, 641,158 SMS and 5,806 Telegram messages have been sent.
New digital solutions specifically target vulnerable groups, such as an automated system to apply for and allocate social housing in Tashkent and a modernization of the Ministry of Healthcare’s database for better access to digital public services for people living with disabilities.
With UNDP’s support, 24-hour phone hotlines complement previously-established online service portals. These have helped struggling SMEs, people feeling isolation’s psychological impacts, and women facing gender-based violence.
Recognizing the untapped potential of Uzbekistan’s digital marketplace, UNDP’s business development initiatives focused on IT and programmers. The start-up initiatives have helped programmers launch social enterprises, while Hackathon challengesexpanded the horizons of the national IT sector. Our Technovation Challenge has inspired school-aged girls to explore digital careers and solutions to social and economic problems. This year’s entries focused on remote assistance to vulnerable groups.
Some pandemic-triggered problems were brand new and needed new solutions, so we asked Uzbekistan’s thousands of young programmers for help. COVID-19 Challenge 2020 received more than 600 entries, with winning projects including mobile applications connecting volunteers with people in need, and a facemask that detects COVID-19 symptoms. Successful proposals are now being developed with UNDP support.
In the post-COVID period, there will be many people seeking jobs, and a depleted service industry desperate for qualified workers. To help bridge this employment gap, we created online videos and targeted digital trainings to women and young people in four districts of Karakalpakstan, building on the UN Joint Aral Sea Programme to strengthen livelihoods.
This is just the beginning
COVID-19 has been an unexpected catalyst for the process of digitalization, proving the saying that necessity begats innovation.
As the pandemic response moves to the next stage, there will be other challenges to address: to deliver social assistance to people without unnecessary movement - in an alternative, digital manner, and to modernize sectors like agriculture, adapting traditional methods. Can new technologies play a role in protecting the environment and biodiversity? Can more open source digital solutions be introduced to support the healthcare system and its communication with citizens?
And yet, to reap technology’s benefits, we need to get the basics right, to make sure all people can access digital tools and know how to use them. Telecommunications infrastructure, a conducive policy environment and widespread digital literacy are all essential, if not crucial, for the success of Uzbekistan’s digital journey.