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DEPA acts as tech go-between in fight against Covid-19

Government agency urges partnerships with local tech startups to ease business suffering

As the “Third Wave” of Covid-19 infections continues across much of Thailand, the Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA), a small government organization about four years old, is playing an eager role in the fight against the deadly coronavirus.

DEPA was formed by the government in 2017 to promote the adoption of digital technology to encourage economic growth. Its President and Chief Executive, Dr Nuttapon Nimmanphatcharin, says the agency will act promptly if it can contribute in any way. Among the things it can do best is encourage Thai startups to further develop innovations that support the battle against Covid-19.

He says DEPA has been involved in Thailand’s efforts to halt the pandemic ever since Covid-19 first hit the country early last year. At that time, panic hoarding led to shortages of face masks, hand gel and other protective equipment. To ease the situation, DEPA worked with Arincare, a digital platform for pharmacists, to provide online information about drug stores where the items were available.

Later, DEPA joined forces with Thai startups to provide web services with database details of personnel in Thailand’s hospitals and medical services, so that people could access medical examination and treatment.

“The information may not be real-time, but at least it tells where you can find doctors when you have medical issues,” the DEPA chief says.

When widespread public anxiety continued in the third quarter of the Covid-19 crisis, DEPA came up with a database offering information on new cases and areas of infection. “We provided the information to build confidence at a time when people were in panic about this new disease,” Dr. Nuttapon says.

Promoting startups to boost incomes

As the Covid-19 situation reached a point where people were flooded with information, DEPA sought to help organizations maintain their income. It also made plans for Thai society to move forward despite Covid-19. For instance, it is in talks with startups to develop systems for detecting and tracking fake news.

Dr. Nuttapon says the DEPA focuses on managing information for maximum benefits, with available technologies and startup allies. For instance, artificial intelligence (AI) is being applied for faster diagnosis of infections, based on a database of several thousand cases gathered overseas.

“Technologies can help support the medical and hospital systems. The AI technology. with examination results from different places, can help doctors with diagnoses. It can be done easier, clearer and more conveniently,” he says.

Another big concern for Thais is making a living and liquidity in the turmoil of the pandemic. DEPA has extended its assistance beyond medical agencies towards business operators that are struggling for survival in the face of changing consumer behavior.

“We agreed that DEPA should do something [about this]. There are some local delivery platforms belonging to Thai businesses that we should promote. We could gather 10 such platforms operated by Thai startups and let Thai people know they are alternatives to foreign platforms. This is competition in the free-trade system,” Dr. Nuttapon says.

In the meantime, DEPA is helping several shops to build platforms and set up systems for payments and points of sale. These could reduce the distance between the shops and their customers.

With this assistance, the operators can run their business more smoothly. This is what Dr. Nuttapon describes as the beginning of a transformation started by DEPA. That was before the government introduced the Kon La Krueng platform for its co-payment subsidy scheme.

“We help business operators to get their back-office systems ready. We do matchmaking between local startups and local businesses. This is not a national program – we are just doing what needs to be done in order to get solutions,” he says.

“We also believe that the success of one project will inspire others through word of mouth. This can lead to more ‘marriages’ between Thai business operators. That’s what DEPA is doing.”

Tackling crisis with speed and decisiveness

Facing the Covid-19 pandemic over the past year has led DEPA to learn a lesson about dealing with such crises: It is essential to think fast and act promptly to make adjustments. Hesitation or dragging your feet is not a good choice, and should be avoided.

In addition to quick actions, it is important to have courage in making decisions based on careful consideration.

“We don’t know if the situation is right or wrong, but decisions must be made based on brainstorming – and not just by one person,” the DEPA chief says.

“With contributions from an army of thoughts, decisions are powerful despite a lack of budget. A quick decision and prompt action result in synergy and unity of work.”

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