Digital frontiers: Leveraging cutting-edge technologies for social behavior change across continents

A side event about risk communication CPHIA 2023 with Dr. Jean Kaseya, Director General of Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (center), Prof Margaret Gyapong, Co-Chair of CPHIA 2023 (left of Dr. Kaseya), and Hon. Sylvia Masebo, Zambia's health minister (right of Dr. Kaseya). Photo by Cecelia Maundu, used with permission.

In an increasingly interconnected world, the significance of technology in fostering positive social behavior change on a global scale is undeniable. Africa, though a latecomer to digitalization, has exhibited a notably swift technology adoption rate. Recent data on internet penetration and a conference focused on achievements and innovations in public health underscore the substantial influence of technology on the continent. The 3rd International Conference on Public Health in Africa (CPHIA 2023), was held in Lusaka, Zambia and focused on preparing communities for the next pandemic with community engagement and social behavioral change architecture.

Traversing digital frontiers reveals their multifaceted nature, weaving through diverse sectors and influencing behavioral changes in myriad ways.

The power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in social behavior change

Artificial intelligence has emerged as a formidable force in shaping societal attitudes and behaviors. By harnessing machine learning algorithms, AI can analyze extensive datasets, identify patterns, and predict future trends. This capability proves particularly valuable in comprehending human behavior and customizing interventions for positive change. Organizations and initiatives are progressively utilizing AI to gain insights into human behavior, forecast trends, and craft targeted interventions.

At the CPHIA 2023  conference, the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) showered praise on the success of AI-driven initiatives, evident in their effective real-time surveillance of infectious diseases.
These initiatives played a pivotal role in guiding interventions and building capacity in big data approaches for outbreak prediction, analysis, and prevention. Notably, during the COVID-19 pandemic, surveillance systems seamlessly activated even in remote locations, showcasing the adaptability and impactful nature of these groundbreaking technologies.

“AI could really help us to be very agile and to analyze that data quick enough for us to be able to plan our interventions,” said Sylvia Masebo, Minister of Health of the Republic of Zambia.

Social media as a catalyst for change

The pervasive influence of social media has provided a dynamic platform for promoting social behavior change. Campaigns and movements that leverage the reach and engagement potential of platforms like Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), and Instagram have the capacity to transcend geographical boundaries. Social media allows for the rapid dissemination of information, the mobilization of communities, and the amplification of voices advocating for positive societal shifts.

“We're working through the work health structures to also share information using social media but we're going to step ahead not only to share the information but also monitor what's happening on social media. So we're doing social media listening and we're using applications such as CrowdTangle to monitor social media conversations,” said Dr Jean Kaseya, Director General, Africa CDC.

Beyond campaigns, social media platforms are vital tools for grassroots movements, enabling activists to amplify voices and connect globally. Utilizing platforms like X, activists organize protests, exemplified by the 2019 Hong Kong protests with the hashtag #antiELAB for real-time coordination. Environmental conservation efforts, as seen with Extinction Rebellion, leverage X and Facebook for global mobilization. Human rights advocacy, exemplified by the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its impactful use of the hashtag, spans platforms like X and Instagram, where activists share visuals and stories, sparking global conversations on social injustice.

This collective power enables these movements to overcome traditional barriers and drive positive societal change globally. The real-time nature of social media facilitates the swift dissemination of information, leading to significant behavioral changes in response to targeted societal campaigns.

Data analytics driving informed decision-making

Data analytics serves as the backbone for evidence-based decision-making in behavior change initiatives. By analyzing large datasets, organizations gain valuable insights into the effectiveness of interventions, enabling them to refine strategies and maximize impact. The integration of data analytics ensures that initiatives are targeted, measurable, and adaptable to the evolving dynamics of societal behavior.

“Technology is bridging the gaps in health care access and delivery. The Digital Disease Surveillance, which was piloted by Africa CDC in six countries, is developing digital surveillance indicators and online disease dashboards based on social media and search engines to inform infectious disease surveillance on the continent,” said Masebo.

Data analytics is pivotal for evidence-based decision-making in behavior change initiatives across health, education, environment, social justice, and economics. Khan Academy optimizes learning experiences through analytics, while the Climate Change in the American Mind project gauges public attitudes toward environmental campaigns. The Center for Policing Equity employs analytics to analyze discrimination patterns in social justice, and the World Bank's Global Findex initiative uses data analytics for interventions promoting responsible financial practices and global financial inclusion.

This versatile approach underscores how analytics empower organizations to drive positive societal changes across diverse sectors.

Navigating the ethical landscape

The CPHIA 2023 conference discussions underscored the importance of navigating the ethical landscape as technology continues to play a pivotal role in shaping social behavior. Ethical considerations, including privacy, data security, and transparency, are paramount to ensure that technological interventions lead to positive societal changes without unintended consequences.

Dr. Kaseya explained:

…But then of course that comes with the whole implications of us understanding the whole issues of privacy, data privacy and securities around that and how we address that. And then also just understanding that even though there are benefits to be tapped in this industry for AI, we still don't have or have very limited regulatory frameworks that govern how AI can be used. And so in the absence of these kinds of regulatory frameworks,  we need to tread very carefully about how we incorporate it.

As we explore the digital frontiers of AI, social media, data analytics, and the Internet of Things, it becomes evident that these technologies, when wielded responsibly, have the potential to drive positive transformations on a global scale. The commitment of African governments, international organizations, and partners to improve public health outcomes reflects a promising future where technology serves as a force for positive societal change.

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