Jenifer Chapman l Palladium - Dec 21 2020
Data Use and Digital Health in the Era of COVID-19

Data.FI helped set up visual analytics of data from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control’s Surveillance, Outbreak Response Management and Analysis System.

Jenifer Chapman is the Project Director of Data.FI. She holds a PhD in public health from the University of London.

I have been working in the global health strategic information space for 20 years, and I think it’s fair to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a remarkable transformation in how we capture and use health data.

The timing of the pandemic coincides with what the World Health Organization has aptly named the data revolution — we are in a period of information free fall, with access to the technology necessary to manage and make sense of the data we produce. We not only have access to routine patient and survey data, but we have the capabilities to curate, synthesise and apply non-traditional data sources (such as satellite imagery and social media) to persistent global health questions.

This coronavirus isn’t the only current public health security threat, nor will it be the last. There is a clear understanding that we will face a novel virus in the future, and we will need to know about it and be ready for it with the right information before it hits.

COVID-19’s pervasiveness has energised the response, creating new global partnerships around data analytics and healthy competition in the search for analytical solutions to complex, urgent challenges, such as how to allocate vaccines. And the nature of the response — closed health facilities, sick healthcare workers, stay-at-home orders — have necessitated new ways of managing patient care and preventing disease.

A few specific and recent shifts in data analytics and use stand out within the global health practitioner community that I believe will shape the sector for years to come.

1. Sharing More Data

We are breaking down data silos across global health areas, which allows us to better integrate and triangulate data. This is in part because the technology exists, but also because the political will and support required for data sharing is expanding. There’s an international acceptance that we have to exchange data safely and routinely between sectors — not just to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, but to prevent and address secondary impacts of the virus and emerging public health security threats.

2. Private Sector Innovation

We are engaging the private sector more effectively, bringing innovations in artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to patient care, and effectively using social media platforms to capture population-level data. Work that was previously on the fringes of global health is now front and centre. We are moving from descriptive analytics to predictive analytics. Instead of asking “how come…?” we are now asking “what if…”

For example, we can predict which individuals will face a treatment interruption before they do, and enable a customised approach to care. Public-private partnerships are also showcasing incredible potential around novel data capture techniques. Facebook’s work in collecting COVID-19 symptom data from users in 200 countries is a testament to what’s possible.

Palladium and others are showing how effectively we can translate private sector innovation into the global health context, pairing new partners with boots-on-the-ground global health staff to translate and operationalise solutions, including where to allocate ventilators and now, distribute vaccines.

3. Building on What Works

We are building on existing technology and systems, versus starting from scratch. We have learned from experience in responding to recent public health emergencies, such as Ebola, to avoid the accelerated development of multiple, misaligned (though well-intentioned) digital tools and apps to capture and make sense of different data.

Instead, there’s a concerted effort to build on what we know and the systems that exist, to integrate and scale, rather than launch and pilot. This supports sustainability, country ownership, and ultimately ensures better data quality and security.

4. Adapting to a New Reality

We are becoming more agile. In an emergency, information is in high demand, and time is precious. This alone requires new ways of working and increased comfort with imperfection and imprecision. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, as the working world went virtual, our usual forms of operations have been fundamentally altered. We’ve had to rapidly adapt to new ways of doing our jobs, better than ever, without that in-person interaction that so frequently helps to move decisions forward.

For example, on the Palladium-led Data.FI project, we pivoted our weekly in-person HIV epidemic control room intervention in Nigeria, where we support stakeholders to analyse and visualise data and track actions, to daily, virtual COVID-19 emergency response meetings, expanding coverage to eight additional states.

Going Further

As a practitioner community, we can still go further. We need to get leaner with data collection — focussing on what measures alter our decisions and capturing those with integrity to reduce costs and the burden on our frontline workers.

We need to continue to expand our use of existing data, demonstrating how datasets from different sectors can be combined to accelerate learning and ultimately transform the patient care experience.

And we all must work to improve data governance. This will protect individual and institutional data, while allowing for the advancements in global health that novel data analytics can catalyse. New technologies present ethical questions and signal requirements for additional safeguards, as outlined in USAID’s recently released Vision for Action in Digital Health.

This pandemic has clearly pushed global health practice to new frontiers — bolstering partnerships and catalysing innovation for positive impact. There will be no return to business as usual. Ultimately, this may prove to be a good thing.

Palladium implements Data.FI for USAID. For more information, contact