How open source made a difference in Mauritius’ pandemic response

November 8, 2020

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Countries with strong digital foundations have been able to respond faster and more effectively against the COVID-19 pandemic. On the flipside, the rapid spread of the virus has exposed the vulnerabilities of countries without the right infrastructure, tools, and skills to fight such a crisis.

Against this backdrop, open-source software can help governments across the world to accelerate their response, especially when time is critical and lives are at stake. It can also increase the sustainability of digitalisation efforts, opening up opportunities to build local skills and talent.

The Global Centre, recognising the role that digital can play, has compiled a repository of open-source tech and tools from across the world. Used right, these tools can help governments monitor, diagnose, prevent, and contain the disease better – and speed up recovery efforts.

Our vision is to shape a catalogue of open-source solutions for governments from the sea of software out there. We chose these tools specifically because they have already been tried and tested, and have proven to be robust and effective in crisis or other situations.

Case Study: Mauritius

The toolkit is making real-world impact. In March, the Central Health laboratory in Mauritius was in urgent need of a lab management information system to process virus tests. The UNDP Country Office in Mauritius shared the toolkit with the health ministry, and acted as a liaison in the implementation of OpenELIS in the Central Health lab, with support from the University of Washington.

There were several benefits to this: most importantly, that it sped up the process it normally takes to procure such systems. For governments, procurement takes a lot of time, according to our Mauritius-based colleagues – anywhere from three to six months, or longer.

Second, any open-source software, while not customised for the specific needs of the problem, can still get you further toward your goal. This tool in question was readily available, and already adhered to the WHO guidelines in terms of laboratory testing. The ministry needed to move fast, and realised it was a cheap and easily accessible option.

The team at the Ministry were able to download the software and test it in hospital and clinic settings without any restrictions. This way, they could process swab, urine, and blood tests; conduct data analyses; and issue reports faster than usual. It's important to note that it used gto take around 60 people to analyse the data to issue reports; now, it's only taking three to five people, for all the quarantine centres and various hospitals responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ministry officers were able to move fast and learn quickly. Within about three weeks, they learned how to use the system by themselves, without any initial assistance from the software developers from UW. These skills have tremendous value even after the pandemic is over – they could come in useful if other countries within Mauritius’ timezone need help and training.

Finally, the ministry spent a fraction of how much this kind of software normally costs. The total amount of the assistance was USD 77,000, in addition to the procurement of other medical equipment and supplies. However, this expenditure has helped the ministry avoid spending approximately US $4.5 million, which was the original budget for such a system.

Next steps for the system include a rollout to hospitals, medi-clinics and dispensaries in the recovery phase of the pandemic There are also plans to integrate this system into the country’s national ID system.

Keeping expertise in-house

It is important to note that the time available to developer teams and others to respond to dynamic situations such as a pandemic is always very limited. What’s more, it can be both expensive and limiting for governments to have to rely on external experts, providers and knowledge.

With open source tools as the foundation, governments can essentially build solutions internally, and develop the skills needed to manage and implement them. In the long run, this can help governments to build internal software engineering capabilities.

COVID-19 has really highlighted serious inequalities and issues on a systemic level in many countries, regardless of income status. With things changing on a daily or even hourly basis, where some countries have conquered the virus but others are experiencing fresh bursts of infections, the recovery period is going to be absolutely critical.

At the Global Centre, we believe that digitalisation is going to be a central component of recovery. Open source tools and other tech can be central to these governments ‘building back better’, even providing a boost to the local innovation ecosystem.

Our role is to catalyse this by fostering partnerships with private sector, academia, civil society and more. It is clear that digitalisation will shape our ‘new normal’ around the world.

View the digital toolkit here. If you would like to partner with us, email us to start the conversation.