Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to interview Atsuko Okuda about what her role within the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and their part in the utilization of partnerships and connectivity in tackling the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. Additionally, Atsuko was able to provide some interesting views on the role of technology and its impact on this pandemic.
Here is the transcript of the interview:
Mae: Could you give us a little background about yourself?
Atsuko: I am the Regional Director of ITU Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. I obtained my BA from Kyoto University, MA from Helsinki University and currently serving at the United Nations University as a research fellow. I have been working for the UN since 1997.
Mae: What is the International Telecommunications Union and what do they do? What is your role within the organization?
Atsuko: ITU is the oldest UN agency specialized in telecommunications and ICT. The main objective of our Bureau is to expand meaningful connectivity and narrow the digital divide in the world. My office is a regional office developing and implementing projects and supporting member countries in Asia and the Pacific.
Mae: What are some of the concerns in the digital realm that the ITU is trying to address? Any projects or initiatives?
Atsuko: We have a number of projects ranging from connectivity, policy and regulation, capacity development, data collection, digital services, emergency communication among others. The concern we have is that the digital divide is not narrowing as fast as we anticipated, and the advanced countries are moving ahead with AI, IoT and Big Data. Catching up is becoming increasingly difficult.
Mae: How has the ITU been involved in lending a hand in the SARS-CoV-2 crisis? Private, public, and social sector (e.g. REG4COVID, platform developments, global partnerships, etc)?
Atsuko: We have many entry points to COVID-19 response and recovery. In addition to REG4COVID, we are supporting member countries to ensure that messages are sent to all with UNICEF and WHO. We are also planning to support medium-term recovery efforts, such as strengthening e-learning, e-health, among others. We hope that COVID-19 recovery is led by digital technology to help rebuild our societies and economies.
Mae: How do you think the development of telecommunication infrastructure will alter due to the pandemic (post-pandemic)? How will telecommunication infrastructures help get the world back to normal? What are some of the harms it can cause society in the process?
Atsuko: I think the importance of ICT and telecommunication infrastructure has been recognized more than ever. The need for more fibre optic cables, data centres, internet exchange points for resilience and redundancy will be highlighted in the future. The technology is anticipated to support the recovery and continue in the longer term. It will be hard to anticipate the harms. But there are already cyberattack increases. We would need to be more prepared especially at the time of the pandemic.
Mae: As we know, there has been an unequal distribution of medical supplies among different countries with different levels of income. This is a clear illustration of the impact of inequality in our world. But when it comes to connectivity, how has the digital divide been amplified by this crisis? How is the ITU addressing that?
Atsuko: I believe that the Internet has also brought in an equalizing effect. COVID-19 affected the countries rich and poor. And the Internet-enabled response and recovery are rather similar, although the sophistication and magnitude may be different. And because of the Internet, people have been still connected globally. That’s the reason why addressing the digital divide has become an urgent priority because the unconnected can’t benefit from the Internet as much as the other half.
— End of the Interview —
Special thanks to Atsuko Okuda for answering our questions!
You can learn more about the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and their work here: https://www.itu.int/en/Pages/default.aspx