Using speech-to-text technology to support response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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“…if COVID is a virus and not bacteria as they claim, how will washing of hands help?  If you wash your hands and the virus, as they say, is airborne, how will washing hands help us?…” (Listener over the radio in Central Region in Uganda, April 2020)

The COVID-19 outbreak has generated a vast amount of research to support detection, patterns of transmission, treatment, development of vaccines and impacts of the pandemic. At UN Global Pulse, we  joined worldwide efforts since the onset of the disease conducting research to scale high-impact data science and AI methodologies to respond to the pandemic.

In a time of a global emergency, when individuals and societies around the world are impacted by historical country lock downs, restriction of movements, and schools and working spaces being closed, using high impact methods of analysis is needed more than ever.  

While vast research has focused on analysing the use of online media during the pandemic, according to UNESCO, radio remains the most reliable and affordable medium of accessing and sharing information in most of the developing world. In Uganda for example, as in many other countries in East Africa, community radio stations are used as a social channel and it is estimated that every day 20 to 25,000 people participate in radio talk shows.

Public discourse on radio includes first-hand accounts of incidents reported by citizens that are not recorded elsewhere. It also includes opinions about the unfolding COVID-19 crisis that are not biased by questions framed by researchers and that reveal personal views not biased by fear of judgement. While public radio discussions represent only a portion of the voices of the population, they nonetheless  constitute an important source of primary data that surpasses any volume of data collected through any other means.

In order to tap into this information stream, UN Global Pulse conducted research  to analyse millions of anonymous opinions voiced on the radio to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The research was conducted  in the Central Region of Uganda during a one week period in the month of April 2020.

The research team at UN Global Pulse used the radio monitoring technology it developed over the course of the years  to extract some 100 transcripts containing COVID-19 keywords.  While the scope of this initial research was small, it proved that the analysis of public radio discourse can support the COVID-19 response, mainly in three areas.

Healthcare System Monitoring and Outbreak Detection

Community reports of people being infected allow the rapid identification of the location and magnitude of possible outbreaks, supporting public health professionals to investigate earlier and respond faster. Local reports, even though anonymous, can help identify  areas where the healthcare system is under the greatest strain and help to inform the prioritization of resource allocation.

Here are some of the issues that were flagged by listeners which were picked up by our Radio Content Analysis Tool:

  • Patients suffering from HIV are not able to access their drugs.
  • There is a lack of vehicles for non COVID-19 patients, especially pregnant women who need to reach health facilities.
  • Health personnel and patients are abandoning health centres for fear of the virus.
  • Health personnel do not have basic protective equipment (PPE).
  • Health personnel are not able to reach health centres due to lack of public transport.
  • Hospitals are not admitting patients for fear of infecting more people.

“…Some members of the health officials were running away from the patients because they had no protective gear. M: He also said that XXX Cultural leaders should stop confusing the masses that Corona is an Evil Spirit. You see even Pastor XXX was arrested for telling people that the virus does not exist…”.

“…The arrested were in the middle of prayers. These were 8 men and 28 ladies. One of the accused said they were praying to God to safeguard them from COVID. When asked whether they were aware of the presidential directive of social distancing, he responded that God’s issues are far more different from Man’s issues. They thus said they are not fighting the government as others are saying but they are working with the government to pray for Uganda to eliminate COVID from Uganda…”.

Snippets from radio conversations taking place during radio shows and discussions.

Managing Infodemics

Reports on potentially harmful misconceptions or rumours related to protective measures by individuals to contain the spread of COVID-19 can guide the successful communication strategies of public health professionals on an international, national, as well as local level.

Here are some of the rumours and inconsistent information identified by the Radio Analysis Tool:

  • Traditional forms of witchcraft being promoted as a cure for the virus.  
  • Praying being promoted by religious leaders as a cure.  
  • Propaganda of some herbs, food items, or chemical products presented as a cure for the virus.
  • Propaganda by some leaders to disrespect basic individual measures of protection like wearing a mask or washing hands.
  • Rumours of a vaccine against COVID-19 being manufactured in Uganda.  

“…I have some local herbs that can help cure Coronavirus. If you want life come to me…”

“…If people had followed what I had told them they would not be regretting. I said Garlic, Entuntunu, Enimawa and eating boiled foods fight Coronavirus…”

“…COVID only attacks people who have travelled abroad, so those of us who have not travelled are very okay…”

Snippets of radio conversations highlighted by the Radio Analysis Tool

Social and Economic Impact Monitoring

Timely local reports about the immediate and medium-term effects of restrictions in the way people are moving around can identify areas and demographic groups where financial hardship is increasing rapidly, and can quantify the overall impacts of the crisis (in areas such as food security, education, and access to healthcare).

Here are some topics that were picked up through radio analysis:

  • Citizens in cities talking about shortages of food and expressing eagerness to leave the city for rural areas where food is more plentiful.
  • Reports of citizens being harassed and mistreated by unidentified groups.
  • A spike in burglaries.
  • Increases in food prices.

“M: … What are some of the effects of the Government directive?

LO: …one of the effects of the Coronavirus was increasing prices of products like the salt.

M= moderator ; LO = local official

We would like to thank Germany’s GIZ for their support to UN Global Pulse activities and tool development, some of which were used for this project. The methodology also draws on earlier research we conducted together with the Epidemic Intelligence from Open Sources (EIOS) Initiative in WHO looking at epidemic surveillance through radio.


The AI based application extracts (data mining process) public radio content in real time (less than 24 hours from air to dashboard) using keywords related to COVID-19. As a result, a vast compilation of anonymous testimonies, opinions and community reports related to the ongoing pandemic are available for decision-making. The UN Data Privacy and Protection Principles and the UNDG Guidance Note on Data Privacy, Protection, and Ethics have guided the analysis and presentation of the results of this project.

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