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Senegal shines in showcase for female tech innovation

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One of the apps allows women to contact three people if they are victims of violence
One of the apps allows women to contact three people if they are victims of violence

Barcode health cards, mobile apps for victims of violence and an online legal platform are just some of the ideas showing the direction of female digital pioneers in Africa, with Senegalese innovators in the spotlight.


The Senegalese capital Dakar this month hosted the first African edition of “Digital Women’s Day”, which for the previous seven years had taken place in Paris.

More than 650 people and 26 corporations attended the event where innovators displayed tech creations, often to tackle daily problems women face and inspired by their own circumstances.

Organisers say Dakar—one of the first African cities to offer free internet access—has ambitions as a budding start-up hub with plans to create 35,000 direct jobs in new technologies by 2025.

“Dakar is among the top 10 digital cities in Africa, with incubators for start-ups and major investors,” said Delphine Remy-Boutang, the event’s founder.

Among the participants was Nafissatou Diouf, who at 22 already heads a start-up with 10 employees.

Her firm, Senvitale, creates QR codes for wristbands, pendants and cards enabling doctors or first responders to instantly access patients’ health data.

Moved by her aunt’s sudden death after a failed treatment of an allergic reaction, Diouf gave up her studies in industrial chemistry and food technology to launch her digital enterprise.

Senvitale, launched in 2017, won best Senegal start-up prize last year for its free platform, which also allows patients to manage their medical appointments.

The concept was to “help doctors and emergency workers… to act quickly”, the young Senegalese businesswoman said.

For now, the project is waiting on authorisation from the Ministry of Health because of the sensitive data that the company handles. But Diouf says she is already considering development of the business internationally.

Victims of violence

Diariata N’diaye, a 36-year-old artist who grew up in France in a Senegalese family, turned her focus on another problem—helping to fight domestic violence and abuse of women.

Through her activism travelling to schools in France to educate young people, she became aware many victims did not realise there was help out there.

In 2015, she launched a mobile application “App-Elles”—a play on words in French that translates into “She-Calls”—that allows victims to alert three contacts in case of danger. It records and transmits the sound of the incident to the recipient and sends the GPS location.

“I began with a very basic observation: everyone has a phone and so if there is going to be a tool for victims, it should go through their phone,” N’diaye said.

An optional wristband, costing 30 euros ($33), can be used to issue the alerts via a Bluetooth link to the mobile, so the victim does not have to draw attention to herself by switching on her phone. The free platform also allows abused women to contact associations or learn about their rights.

The App-Elles creator claims 8,000 downloads of its application and a presence in 10 countries, including France, Canada, Morocco, the United States as well as Senegal.

“We have a lot of people using App-Elles when they go out,” says N’diaye. “Women who start early in the morning, who come back late at night.”

Legal resources

When Nafissatou Tine, a 34-year-old Senegalese-French lawyer left Brussels in 2016 to settle in Dakar, she struggled to find reliable sources of information on Senegalese law.

So with the Sunulex platform, which brings together all of Senegal’s digitised laws as well as decisions of jurisprudence, she sought to fill a gap for law students, lawyers and even citizens.

Sunulex has placed 800 texts on a publicly accessible free platform—a small portion out of the total of 60,000—which gets 1,700 hits a week.

The company, which already has eight employees, hopes to launch a version next month that will pitch to 10 countries in French-speaking Africa.

“It’s an African platform made with African resources, by Africans, for Africans, and for lawyers around the world,” she said.


Senegal launches African ‘cyber-security’ school


© 2019 AFP

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Senegal shines in showcase for female tech innovation (2019, June 19)
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Tech News

Research refutes tech, mental health problems link

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Numerous articles have been published linking tech use among adolescents with increased rates of depression, suicide and other harms. In 2011, an article in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics coined the term Facebook Depression, designating “when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook

Larry Magid (Gary Reyes / Mercury News)

and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.” But a number of experts refuted that claim. At the time, I wrote “After examining the report’s related references, speaking with the report’s lead author and talking to the lead author of one of the research studies that the claim is based on, I’ve concluded that the diagnosis of Facebook depression is a nonexistent condition.”  Of course, people can become depressed when they encounter depressing content on Facebook, but that would be true in any venue.

Another highly cited article from the Atlantic, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation, by Jean Twenge, was also the subject of much scrutiny, including my own analysis from 2018, where I quoted a number of experts, including prominent youth researcher Vicky Rideout who wrote in a London School of Economics blog,  “Twenge is right to be concerned about the mental health of adolescents. Depression and suicide among young people have increased notably. … But the suggestion that getting teens to put down their phones would have a meaningful effect on this mental health challenge is overly simplistic; indeed, it could serve as a dangerous distraction from the hard work that needs to happen in adolescent mental health.”

Despite these alarming articles, there are researchers who spend their time reporting actual facts, based on studies of social media and youth behavior. Last week, an article appeared in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry which reviewed an impressive number of studies on the relationship between teens use of mobile phones and social media and negative consequences, with the authors finding that “the focus “on negative effects has been based on weak correlational data.”

The research review, Adolescent mental health in the digital age: facts, fears, and future directions, “synthesized data from three sources: (a) narrative reviews and meta‐analyses conducted between 2014 and 2019, large‐scale preregistered cohort studies and intensive longitudinal and ecological momentary assessment studies” and found that “technology usage and mental health, show that associations between time online and internalizing symptoms are often (a) mixed between positive, negative, and null findings, (b) when present, are likely too small to translate into practically or clinically meaningful effects.”

The authors acknowledged that there have been increases in suicide (especially among girls) as well as anxiety and depression among youth in certain countries. “When plotted alongside increases in social media usage across this same time period, a powerful narrative has emerged that social media is driving changes in depressive symptoms and suicidal behaviors.”  Yet, when they study the data, they found that “technology usage and mental health, show that associations between time online and internalizing symptoms are often (a) mixed between positive, negative, and null findings, (b) when present, are likely too small to translate into practically or clinically meaningful effects.”

Restricting tech use might be ‘ill-advised’

One of the most important observations of the study is that “Policies restricting adolescents’ access to new technologies … may be ill advised if new technologies are being used as a valuable source of social support or are required in order to build digital and interpersonal (digitally mediated) skills for economies of the future.”  The authors also argue that “many of the same principles that guide healthy development and inform effective parenting will apply when supporting youth in their online activities and experiences. If this is true, then the good news for parents and policymakers is that existing evidence‐based interventions and strategies may look different but will still be effective in supporting youth in the digital age.”

Takeaways

It would be foolhardy to ignore potential risks associated with connected technology social media, but equally foolhardy to conclude that the growth in technology use is the reason for increased rates of suicide or mental health problems.  As any social scientist will tell you, a correlation isn’t the same as causation. I’m no expert when it comes to suicide, but a paper by Kirsten Weir published by the American Psychological Association points out that “Pinpointing the reasons that suicide rates rise or fall is challenging in part because the causes of suicide are complex.” The author goes on to say that “Risk factors include health factors (such as depression, substance use problems, serious mental illness and serious physical health conditions including pain), environmental factors (such as access to lethal means and stressful life events including divorce, unemployment, relationship problems or financial crisis).” She said that half of suicide deaths in the U.S. are “the result of firearms. And there’s evidence that when access to guns goes down, so do suicide deaths.”

Weir points out that countries which have been able to reduce suicides, “have made suicide prevention a mission, through efforts such as improving access to mental health treatment, investing in community interventions, coordinating suicide prevention across health care, social, education and employment services.” She does not recommend that people stop using their phones.

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