During the initial stages of the first wave of the pandemic, the Greater Chennai Corporation launched a COVID-19 Monitoring App on March 27, 2020, to track areas in the city where people had symptoms and to map out containment zones. This was the brainchild of Azhagu Pandia Raja, who later became the city’s first Innovation Officer — a newly-created position for the 31-year-old — earlier this year. The position currently exists in very few city corporations in the world. Prior to this, he worked in the UK as an engineer and was later a Smart Cities Research Fellow with the Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs.
In an interview with TNM, Azhagu said that while the app had become redundant due to the extensive spread of the virus, according to him it was useful to optimise resources in the initial days, and crossed over 1.5 lakh downloads on the Play Store. Initially, he said that it helped analyse and predict future spread. While there were some negative reviews for this, Azhagu said that the response was largely positive. However, when the virus spread significantly, the city corporation moved on to other apps for fever surveys and home isolation management which were to be used by volunteers and corporation staff, and not by the public.
“We created a tool where volunteers could map all the fever symptoms across the city so that we can assist needy people as well as predict the analysis and spread,” he said.
The results of using such technology, Azhagu says, was completely different from what they initially thought it would be, he says. With this, he adds that they were able to identify inefficiencies in their process and that using such apps helped the Corporation with more accountability and transparency.
“Rather than a non-digital format, where we usually get all input via paper or some excel sheets, here, we are able to get real time inputs and we have extensive dashboards. We are able to see whether that particular person or employee is actually going and monitoring the specific person because we are also getting the GPS location of where the entry is being made. It supported the system to make it foolproof, as people know that they are being monitored. The efficiency of the work increased overall,” he said.
However, Azhagu says that they are looking at overcoming the digital divide, especially for vaccination. Now, he says while the city has rolled out an app for people to sign up for vaccine slots and is available in Tamil too, he said the first question for them to answer was what people without access to the internet or a device, or if they didn’t know how to access the same, would do.
“We created dedicated call centres and gave the call centre access to the portal. So, if someone doesn't know how to book one, they can call the centre and people in the center will book it for them and an SMS will be sent, which they can use at the centre. We didn’t want the digital divide to be a reason which would stop people from getting the vaccine. This is why there are walk-in slots too for those who cannot access it, he adds.
The use of various apps during the pandemic, such as Aarogya Setu and the CoWIN portal, has been criticised — among other reasons — for making barriers. Azhagu says that technology cannot solve problems and only processes can, which can be strengthened with the help of technology.
“Technology cannot solve any problem. Processes can solve problems, technology strengthens the process. Technology will bring accountability, transparency, strength and integrity. It will make the process simple. People have to work and processes have to work. It should be sustainable and a solid, systematic process should be in place. That should be inclusive and this process can be easily monitored if we enable it with technology. Technology is a tool and not the way to solve the problem,” he says.
In another situation, Azhagu said that the revenue department’s collections late last year had fallen due to the pandemic as the focus was on health-related activities. In order to motivate people, Azhagu said they brought gamification into the system and created a ‘league’ called the Greater Chennai Corporation Revenue League and made the corporation’s 15 zones as 15 teams and started a competition among them. He compared this to the IPL, where zones received points for every taxation and awards such as ‘Man of the Match’ and ‘Man of the Series’ were given out.
When the idea was pitched, Azhagu says that officials were hesitant to greenlight it because gamification hadn’t been done on this scale in a city, but then gave the go-ahead. “The month we launched the revenue league saw the highest taxation in the history of Chennai Corporation,” he says. Now, the department is looking to make this an annual event.
Going ahead, he says that the Innovation Centre hopes to actively work with the city’s citizens, and is setting up a website for people to reach out to them. If a scholar or PhD student is working on specific research, he adds that they can now connect to the corporation and work under it if the problem they are working on aligns with the problems being faced by the Corporation. Start-ups, too, can test their solutions, he says, stating that it’s how the apps for controlling the spread of COVID-19 came about.
“We have the potential to give this kind of piloting phase to startups, as well as volunteers to come and work with us,” he adds.