Issue Brief: Major Takeaways from the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge

This piece was originally published on the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge site. To learn more about our effort with the French Development Agency and Expertise France to support data-driven work to address COVID-19 across Africa, visit https://datachallenge.africa/.

Image from Mufid Majnun/Unsplash is licensed under CC0

Two years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic was impossible to imagine. Today, it is the source of enormous challenges, especially in the Global South. While estimates of excess mortality show that many countries in the region compare favorably to those elsewhere in the world, the pandemic has still overburdened health systems, shuttered businesses, and exacerbated a variety of pre-existing social problems.

The #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge was an initiative by The Govlab, Expertise France, and l’Agence française de développement (AFD) to mitigate these issues by spurring innovative, data-driven work to address COVID-19 and its secondary effects.

We invited inter-sectoral teams (representing academic, government, and nonprofit actors) specializing in data analysis to submit proposals for funding for innovative projects that addressed challenges associated with COVID-19. We then supported seven of these groups over a six-month period as they unlocked datasets, worked with other actors in the field, and tried to translate their insights into action.

Their work produced substantial public good (some of which we detail here), but we also want to describe our takeaways on how rapidly deployed data-driven prizes and challenges can be used in dynamic crisis settings where traditional datasets might not be readily available. Though we provide more detail in the supplementary issue brief here (as well as in French here, Spanish here, and Portuguese here), there are four major points we recommend for future development actors.

1. Be Collaborative Across the Project Cycle to Expedite Work: The #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge aimed to produce not just insights but action that could address COVID-19 and its effects in a short period of time. As such, the entire effort — from defining focus, reviewing proposals, supporting planning, and providing support — made use of collaborative methods to expedite the usual design cycle. The GovLab, Expertise France, and AFD worked together to identify clear milestones that would require teams to submit clear and direct proposals for funding. The Challenge relied on an external review board of established data professionals to help review proposals.

2. Outside Training and Expertise is Vital: Our work suggested that outside experts were vital in helping teams overcome logistical and technical challenges. Throughout the six-month project, The GovLab identified and helped teams contact data experts who could address questions that might fill knowledge or capacity gaps or help teams find useful datasets. Outside experts can also support in making teams aware of their legal and regulatory responsibilities. The Challenge sponsors, specifically, engaged with an external law firm to provide all participants with an overview of GDPR to ensure teams adhered to this legal framework and addressed data privacy concerns as they arose. This training allowed teams to ask questions about the privacy implications and their challenges and proactively develop approaches to mitigate risks.

3. Connect Teams with Outside Decision-Makers: Data can be used to produce great insights into complex problems, but it is essential that these insights be acted upon. In other words, data intelligence must be turned into decision intelligence. While short timelines made it hard for groups to collaborate with those outside their cohort, as outside actors often had schedules and obligations that do not align with the challenge timeline, the Challenge tried to mitigate this issue by requiring each team to have a partnership with a decision-making organization before they began work. Challenge sponsors also tried to use their existing relationships and resources to line up additional opportunities for project teams.

4. Offer Communications Support:: Finally, outside actors — whether those be the public, local governments, or research institutions — can only support projects if they are aware of them and the value they can provide. Awareness raising activities can be difficult for small teams working under tight constraints. The GovLab and AFD worked to help teams with communications and awareness-raising activities by supporting public reporting, engagement with data journalists, hosting expert workshops and convenings, and leading social media dialogues.

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These are only a few of the major findings of the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge, findings which are explored in more detail in our full issue brief here. We encourage anyone interested in this work to read that piece for additional details.

You can follow our newsletter for updates as we continue our work to promote better uses of data to address dynamic threats such as COVID-19.

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Andrew J. Zahuranec

Andrew J. Zahuranec

Research Fellow at The GovLab

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