Building a Healthy Data Ecosystem to Fight COVID-19 #DoingDataRight

Mike Klein
Jan 26, 2021 · 6 min read

In May 2020, FCDO COVIDaction made a global call for data innovations centred on four impact areas: Data Use, Data Sources & Collection Tools, Responsible Data, and Epi Modelling. In total, we made 12 awards to organisations that are working to reduce transmission, inform response, and/or prioritise delivery of services in the fight against COVID-19, with a specific focus on assisting LMICs in their response efforts.

In total, we made 12 awards to organisations that are working to reduce transmission, inform response, and/or prioritise delivery of services in the fight against COVID-19, with a specific focus on assisting LMICs in their response efforts.

The Data Challenge aimed to identify mature innovations able to scale quickly. The working hypothesis was that global actors with an established user base were particularly well-positioned to pivot and contribute to the response to COVID-19. At the same time, this approach would not add to the noise of an emerging digital ecosystem — ranging from new and untested digital contact tracing applications to AI-powered symptom diagnostic tools. While the data challenge didn’t rule any new innovations out directly, our focus was building on the existing digital ecosystem because our aim was to fund tools that had existing capacity.

For example, one awardee, BAO Systems, has been able to ramp up global usage in more than 37 countries for its DHIS2 COVID-19 Surveillance Package, which extends on a well-known and trusted tool (e.g. DHiS2) used by many health actors.

So what’s the value add of the Data Challenge if we’re funding existing programmes and tools? FCDO was able to step into existing conversations and ask data providers how they could most effectively respond to the pandemic. Then, we were able to support and reduce the risk of these teams as they ramped up their efforts, making gains in areas in which they may not have had the capacity to respond without support from the Data Challenge. In addition, we brought technical assistance to these grantees as a way to help them address bottlenecks to their potential or continued growth. This ranged from introductions to other donor institutions, FCDO country offices, ministries of health, to more technical support on issues such as data privacy that needed to be addressed.

In addition to working with tools able to quickly reach scale, the Data Challenge also identifies grantees positioned to make the most of existing data sources. Organisations like Surgo Ventures and Fraym play a key role in leveraging existing data (such as Demographic Health Surveys) to help decision-makers make sense of how COVID-19 is impacting communities differently. They have pulled together, in some cases up to 20 distinct data sets, to model the ways in which COVID-19 impacts local communities. This information provides decision-makers with detailed analysis to inform their response. It’s these types of tools that will be essential to understanding how LMIC countries better control the pandemic and ensure lives are saved first through prevention and later through the informed allocation of vaccines.

Our investments were made with the data value chain in mind

Finally, the pandemic has made clear that we must elevate concepts such as digital governance alongside other innovations. Otherwise, silos emerge and we — as development and humanitarian actors — only give these matters proper attention when risks manifest. For this reason, our investments were made with the data value chain in mind.

Prioritising data governance led COVIDaction to invest in organisations that promote responsible data. This includes: appropriate and safe collection of data, reliable storage and analytical tools for usage, and providing guidance for governments and partners.

One such example is the #RestoreDataRights initiative, created by the Open Institute. The Kenya-based organisation is seeking to create an African-based dialogue on data sovereignty and ensure individuals have agency in how their data is accessed and used. Awards like these made as part of the holistic portfolio ensure that we’re balancing innovation with risk-mitigating investments.

Beyond responding to the immediate threats of the pandemic, the COVIDaction Data Challenge also supports the building of sustainable, healthy data ecosystems. We are working with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) to promote data use. Supported by COVIDaction, GPSDD is working with National Statistics Offices (NSOs) and government partners to bring Data Challenge innovations to NSOs and other actors to fight COVID-19. GPSDD is a trusted actor that brings existing relationships to bear across LMICs and provides the organisation with a new set of tools to assist their government partners where appropriate.

Results

We granted 12 awards from the 339 submissions we received. Our 12 awardees met our core criteria of proven tools that could be easily adapted and scaled, received high marks by our judges and teams, and where additional input by COVIDaction in the form of cash grants and technical assistance would be catalytic to scale the usage and impact.

Additionally, we also looked holistically across all of the potential awardees to see where they could connect and support one another and help support different elements of the data ecosystem.

The Data Challenge team identified different awardees based on how they individually supported the data ecosystem but also considered how awardees could link together to multiply impact. Broadly speaking, this meant that our awardees fit into three broad portfolio categories: data accessibility and use, back end systems, and data governance. Even more excitingly, the awardees’ innovations often fit or support the other categories as well as other innovations, allowing for a network effect of our support.

As highlighted in the following graphic, the connections between grantees made possible (between the first and second rounds of the Data Challenge awards) highlights the type of healthy data ecosystem we have been able to create.

Awardee Connections: A Portfolio Approach. The Data Challenge team identified different awardees based on how they individually supported the data ecosystem but also considered how awardees could link together to multiply impact.

Information about applicants that were not selected but met our validity criteria, is available via both our internal database and the DIAL repository to FCDO and other partners that may be looking for targeted innovations. We’re also working with donors like USAID, and the Data.FI programme, to support investments. As an example, Data.FI has identified several promising candidates to support the mapping of health centres across Africa. Presented alongside electrification data, these innovators represent promising approaches for the planning of cold-chain dependent vaccines.

Data Accessibility and Use (i.e. Data Analytics and EpiModels)

Data won’t have an impact if it is not accessible and used by decision-makers. We know, however, that the data has to be available, in the right formats, with sound science and data quality in order for it to support impactful change in the fight against COVID-19. The Data Challenge selected this range of innovations that promoted accessibility and usage of the data:

As well as specific tools looking at Epidemiological Models that could be adapted and scaled across different LMICs:

Back-end Systems (i.e. Data Collection and Sources)

However, in order for these systems to have accurate, complete, and timely data, there is a range of back-end systems required. These systems are needed to make it easy and affordable for data analysts and systems to access the data so that it can be acted upon. The Data Challenge identified the following innovations that promote improved usage and access to appropriate data:

Data Governance (i.e. Responsible Data)

Finally, the Data Challenge included Responsible Data approaches and tools as a way to support the overall Data ecosystem. Through these awards, governments, civil rights advocates, relief organisations, and other local and international actors can build trusted and sustainable data systems that balance the needs for privacy and security protections with improved usage of the data for decision-making, and data for transparency and openness.

The Data Challenge awarded funding and technical assistance to the following innovations to promote Responsible Data systems throughout the world:

About the FCDO COVIDaction Data Challenge

The Data Challenge is part of the FCDO Frontier Technology Hub COVIDaction programme. COVIDaction works across five themes: Data, Local Production & Local Solutions, Resilient Health Systems, and Oxygen CoLab.

COVIDaction

Building a Technology and Innovation Pipeline for the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVIDaction

COVIDaction, a partnership between UKAid, UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering and Global Disability Innovation Hub, alongside others, is building a tech and innovation pipeline to support action related to the COVID-19 pandemic across different thematic areas

Mike Klein

Written by

Michael Klein is a director of IMC USA, focused on promoting the use of technology in development. https://www.linkedin.com/in/kleinmichael/

COVIDaction

COVIDaction, a partnership between UKAid, UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering and Global Disability Innovation Hub, alongside others, is building a tech and innovation pipeline to support action related to the COVID-19 pandemic across different thematic areas