When WhatsApp goes down

Finance Minister Colm Imbert - SUREASH CHOLAI
Finance Minister Colm Imbert - SUREASH CHOLAI

A BUDGET is normally the most important policy statement by a government in any given year, but Monday’s presentation by Finance Minister Colm Imbert will go down in history as the first budget to be all but eclipsed by a social media outage.

Such is the new normal that many people were more preoccupied for hours with the effects of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook going dark than they were with the minister’s speech.

That presentation, ironically, saw Mr Imbert place much emphasis on what he described as “digital transformation.” Free WiFi service is to be expanded to all schools, libraries, transport hubs, health sites; digital wallets will be introduced; a national digital ID system is coming.

“While we might be perceived as being behind in the digital ID race, we wish to get right this digital transformation process,” Mr Imbert said. “Our objective is for TT to become a model for the region.”

We have heard grand announcements like this before. Without more concrete steps being taken to address the complex and multi-faceted issues faced by citizens who now have little choice but to rely on information communications technology, the budget’s rhetorical gestures will come over as simply pie in the sky.

There are pressing, and basic, ICT issues that have not been satisfactorily addressed.

With the education system set to be hybrid for some time to come, students are still having trouble accessing online classes. While some laptops have been distributed, it is very hard to process the procurement delays that have left a lot of vulnerable students offline.

Meanwhile, thousands of teachers, who are now required to have a dual approach to classes, are refusing to sign in, as demonstrated by blackouts on Tuesday and last week.

Mr Imbert would like TT to become a model nation, yet we cannot seem to get straightforward, urgent things like online travel passes, medical appointments and vaccination credentials completely right. The complaints about these systems are multiple, involving as they do duplication of effort and problems with lack of co-ordination between agencies.

Next Monday, the new “safe zone” system will come online, with only vaccinated people being allowed into certain spaces. And yet there is no single, real-time, digital verification system in place, notwithstanding extensive boasts about the data-collection done at health sites. For now, businesses and police officers will apparently have to check immunisation cards and sniff out those that might be fake.

Given the underwhelming approach of the budget to digital issues, perhaps the social-media blackout was fortunate for the Government after all.


"When WhatsApp goes down"

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