R-L: Tarun Katapally, Patient-Oriented Research leader and JSGS Associate Professor; Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation and JSGS Professor

Mitacs and JSGS to support Indigenous and northern communities with new digital technologies in fight against COVID-19

The projects will introduce Indigenous and northern communities to digital technologies that can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and provide additional economic and commercial opportunities for the region.

By Erica Schindel, Communications and Marketing Specialist

Tarun Katapally and Ken Coates, faculty in the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy’s (JSGS) University of Regina (U of R) and University of Saskatchewan (USask) campuses, have been awarded $150K and $250K respectively from Mitacs, a national not-for-profit innovation organization.

The projects will introduce Indigenous and northern communities to digital technologies that can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and provide additional economic and commercial opportunities for the region.

Tarun Katapally, a patient-oriented research leader and JSGS associate professor on the U of R campus, is developing an app-based program that will ultimately provide Indigenous community leaders with data to assist them in self-governing and decision-making during public health crises, such as COVID-19. This research is based on Katapally’s evidence-based global digital citizen science policy solution to tackle pandemics. Data sourced will be co-owned with Indigenous communities.

“Northern and Indigenous communities are at serious risk of loss due to pandemics such as COVID-19,” says Katapally. “Even as the rest of Saskatchewan is showing signs of recovery, Northern communities in the province are experiencing a rapid surge of COVID-19 with the highest number of reported active cases. More distressingly, while the rate of infections in remote Indigenous communities is rising, other parts of the country are already planning to reduce restrictions.”

As a pilot project, Katapally will be working with community leaders and residents in Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan, to launch the app-based program. Indigenous and northern residents who volunteer for the project will be asked to self-monitor and report any COVID-19-like symptoms, and to track their movements and interactions within the community. The user-friendly app will allow citizens to be equal partners and engage with researchers in the Digital Epidemiology and Population Health Laboratory.

“Apart from comprehensive testing, the most significant component in curtailing the spread of COVID-19 is developing evidence-based population-level containment strategies and policies,” says Katapally. “We must bring people together and provide them with ethical surveillance tools to help them overcome their fear, be better informed, and help our health and financial systems monitor the situation.”

With the support and involvement of northern Indigenous peoples, this app-based platform will aid communities in improving population-level containment strategies and enable effective public health communication in real time. This new technology, which is also supported by the Lung Association of Saskatchewan, is a scaled-up version of the existing SMART Platform.

“We need digital tools for self-governance to face threats like COVID-19, especially in remote and northern regions,” says Duane Favel, Mayor, Île-à-la-Crosse. “I see great potential for this platform not just for this pandemic, but even for other public health challenges. We are very excited to work with Dr. Katapally to launch this platform.”

“Mitacs is delighted to partner with faculty of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy,” says John Hepburn, Mitacs CEO and Scientific Director. “We believe that innovation is a powerful tool to solve the challenges brought by the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic, and we are pleased to support the use of digital technologies to help Indigenous and northern communities navigate these unique times.”

The second project is led by Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation and professor at the JSGS USask campus, in partnership with the Na-Cho Nyäk Dun Development Corporation (Yukon) and Des Nedhe Development Corporation (northern Saskatchewan). His Policy North research team is exploring the relevance and viability of technological innovations to the unique circumstances and opportunities of the North.

“At present, northern, remote and Indigenous communities are being left behind in the technological revolution,” says Ken Coates. “By working with Indigenous economic development corporations, start-up companies, corporations and researchers on technologies with a northern application, we hope to ensure that Indigenous and northern communities gain more of the benefits from fast-moving technological innovations.”

As part of a two-year project, his team will work with southern companies and innovators to explore the applicability of innovations in northern, Indigenous, and small-town environments, and to develop the means of commercializing these technologies within northern and remote communities.

“Essentially, we will be functioning as an applied incubator,” says Coates.

His research will focus on a broad range of products and services, including 3D printer construction, automated vehicles, remote mining technologies, alternate energy systems, remote surgery, and automated food production facilities.

“Ensuring that governments and communities alike are using innovations to serve public need is important, especially as we think ahead to a post-COVID-19 world,” says Doug Moen, JSGS Executive Director. “The work that both Ken and Tarun are doing in partnership with northern and Indigenous communities is imperative to ensuring that they don’t get left behind.”

About Mitacs:

  • Mitacs is a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.
  • Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, and the Government of Saskatchewan.

For more information:

Erica Schindel, Communication and Marketing Specialist
Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy
erica.schindel@usask.ca | 306-966-2663

Monique Rodrigues, Communications Specialist
msilvarodrigues@mitacs.ca | 604-347-6837