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14 May 2020, Gateway House

Digitally combating COVID19

Compared to many countries India’s digital initiatives to monitor and control the impact of COVID19 have been surprisingly successful and swift. Creating and implementing the deep IT infrastructure necessary for this success is the National Informatics Centre (NIC) - the government’s pan-India, digital backbone.

Researcher, Cybersecurity Studies Programme and Manager, Management Office, Gateway House

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Digital governance applications such as the ArogyaSetu app are intelligent pre-emptive measures by the Indian government that are greatly helping to control and monitor the current pandemic. The quick implementation of these initiatives in a crisis has been possible largely due to the breath and capabilities of the National Informatics Centre (NIC), an arm of the Ministry of IT & Electronics.

Headquartered in Delhi along with a centre in each state, NIC hosts websites, stores data, builds apps, and creates and manages the entire digital infrastructure of the government. The organizations primary function is to provide Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure and e-governance solutions for the central and state governments.

A recent innovation by NIC, ArogyaSetu app is a good example of its capabilities.[1] ArogyaSetu is a contact tracing app that uses bluetooth and location data to warn users of nearby COVID19 cases. According to the system developed by NIC, when two Bluetooth enabled smartphones are near each other, they interact through the app and the user is alerted if they are near a COVID19 positive person.

Due to this innovation by NIC, India is now among one of the earliest developers of a national digital contact tracing system for COVID19 management. As of 5 May 2020, ArogyaSetu has been downloaded by more than 90 million users across the country. While Singapore’s TraceTogether[2], and Australia’s CovidSafe[3] have been effective, the United States and most European countries are still playing catch-up.

Apple and Google meanwhile, have recently announced they are building a new contact tracing product which uses only bluetooth and not location data[4]. Once this API (Application Programming Interface) is rolled out, many countries will be able to build their own indigenous smartphone applications for tracing cases.

India has meanwhile has moved on to creating a similar application for non-smart phone users. On 28 April 2020, Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad announced on twitter that a “similar solution for feature phones is being developed and will be announced very soon.”

Other important digital initiatives developed by NIC during this crisis are:

1: Video conferencing – Since February 2020, 5700 video conferencing sessions[5] have been conducted. NIC’s existing video conferencing facilities[6] ensured seamless communication between the centre and the state; between ministries; and between inter-government departments. The platform has allowed the government to avoid private foreign made apps such as zoom.

2: NIC has also played a lead role in revamping the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare’s website[7] to serve as the official source for COVID19 information and statistics for India. India’s dashboard of active and discharged cases, state-wise and at an aggregate are displayed. The website also disseminates information such as awareness material for frontline workers, travel advisories, training material and help line numbers etc.

3: The office management software eOffice[8], has enabled remote working for many government employees. Traditional file management is now tracked and approved through an online eFile system. eOffice provides a collaboration and document sharing platform helping the government avoid third party tools.

4: During this lockdown, the Public financial Management System built by NIC disbursed Rs 36,659 crore to 16.01 crore beneficiaries through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT).[9] The mechanism used to transfer subsidy money during normal times was adapted to transfer relief money during COVID19.

5: Another COVID19 management strategy developed by NIC has been the e-Pass. This application issues passes for inter and intra district movement of vehicles involved in essential services during lockdown. As issuing manual passes is difficult during this period, e-Pass is an efficient solution to quickly enable essential services.

6: A website called Covid Warriors[10] has also been developed to link doctors, paramedics, police, ex-servicemen, allied healthcare professional and others. The portal acts as a directory and provides nodal contact details of – Panchayat secretary of each state; veterinary services of each state; and ASHA and Anganwadi workers among others.

An overview of NIC services fall into three categories:

Services:  NIC provides the infrastructure for running digital services. NIC-net is a pan India communication network built exclusively for the government, and connects the four major government data centres located in New Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune and Bhubaneshwar. These centres in turn support more than 10,000 eGovernment projects[11], and host the national cloud, Meghraj.[12] Such indigenous IT infrastructure ensures data and network security and prevents cyber attacks.

Products and Platforms: These are software tools that enable Government-to-Citizen(G2C), Government-to-Business(G2B), and Government-to-Government(G2G) services. The most famous platform is MyGov[13], an interactive engagement platform that provides information about digital governance, fact checks fake news and provides a place for citizens to share ideas. MyGov also acts as an agent for digital initiatives. Currently, there are 111 lakh[14] registered members on the platform, and it has become one of the major instruments used by the government to disseminate COVID19 related information.

The National Portal of India (India.gov.in)[15] and the Open Government Data Platform (Data.gov.in)[16] are other platforms that provide services and information digitally.

Centre of excellences (CoE) for Emerging Tech:[17] These centers focus on emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics. The CoE for BlockChain Tech for example has developed Digidhan,[18] a blockchain based ledger application to monitor, analyse and audit banking payments through interfaces such as UPI (Unified Payment Interface), debit card, credit card and internet banking.

As we move into a new phase post COVID19, the successes with NIC’s platforms should encourage the Indian government to mine it further for governance solutions.

NIC houses massive amounts of data with many government apps constantly collecting information. This data can be used for focused application innovation. For example traffic congestion can be decreased through smart traffic management by collecting vehicular and traffic junction data and managing it through a central system. Street crimes can be reduced through surveillance on public roads through enabled systems.

Predictive data models can be applied to optimize resource allocation in the public distribution system through algorithms built on migration trends. Similarly, such models can be used to predict tax fraud by analyzing behavioral patterns of individuals and companies. Infrastructure needs, social needs, and disaster response can be mapped and predicted by analyzing past data trends.

NIC as an infrastructure of institutions and a seat for innovation presents tremendous unexplored potential for the Indian government to lead by digital-example.

Sagnik Chakraborty is Researcher, Cybersecurity Studies, and Manager, Management Office, Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.in

© Copyright 2020 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

References

[1] mygov.in, ‘Aarogya Setu Mobile App’, Government of India, https://www.mygov.in/aarogya-setu-app/

[2] ‘Trace Together’, Government of Singapore, https://www.tracetogether.gov.sg

[3] Department of Health, ‘COVIDSafe app’, Government of Australia, https://www.health.gov.au/resources/apps-and-tools/covidsafe-app

[4] ‘COVID-19 Exposure Notification Using Bluetooth Low Energy’, https://www.blog.google/documents/66/Overview_of_COVID-19_Contact_Tracing_Using_BLE_1.pdf

[5] ‘Video Conferencing Division’, National Informatics Centre, http://vidcon.nic.in

[6] ‘Video Conferencing Division’, National Informatics Centre, http://vidcon.nic.in

[7] Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, https://www.mohfw.gov.in/

[8] eoffice, Government of India, https://eoffice.gov.in/

[9] National Informatics Centre, ‘Public Financial Management System (PFMS) of Controller General of Accounts (CGA) with National Informatics Centre (NIC) as Technology Partner transferred over Rs 36,659 crore in the bank accounts of 16.01 crore beneficiaries via DBT, during lockdown amid #COVID19. #NICMeitY‘, Twitter, https://twitter.com/NICMeity/status/1252182530784018434

[10] ‘COVID 19 Warriors’, Government of India, https://covidwarriors.gov.in

[11] National Informatics Centre, Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, https://www.nic.in

[12] National Cloud, National Informatics Centre, Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, https://cloud.gov.in/about.php

[13] My government Dashboard, https://www.mygov.in

[14] My government Dashboard, https://www.mygov.in

[15] Government of India, National portal of India, https://www.india.gov.in

[16] Open Government Data, Government of India, https://data.gov.in

[17] National Informatics Centre, ‘Emerging Technologies’, Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, https://www.nic.in/emerging-technology/

[18] National Informatics Centre, ‘Digidhan: Centre of Excellence in Blockchain Technology’, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, https://blockchain.gov.in/digidhan.html

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