In the face of supply chain disruptions resulting from the current COVID-19 pandemic, the family planning community has turned to RHSC’s data sources for more clarity. The Global FP VAN, for example, provides insight into product flows and also the relative risk of supply chain disruptions. The VAN’s public-access dashboards — RHViz — allow the analysis of $2.17 billion worth of contraceptive orders and shipments. The recent inauguration of RHViz embodies a principle of data sharing and a collaborative spirit which take their inspiration from the very creation of the RHSC.
For more than a decade, Coalition partners have worked together to forge innovative tools the community needs to understand the reproductive health supplies market better and make informed decisions. One of the earliest such tools was the groundbreaking RHInterchange, born of the vision of a few key stakeholders whose spirit and ethos inform much of what we see in the VAN. Today, we speak to a few RHInterchange stalwarts who helped shape RHSC’s role in data provision over the years. They identify the unique collaborative ethos that has stood the RHSC in good stead for nearly two decades.
The RHInterchange (RHI) was launched in 2003 by members of the Supply Initiative, a precursor to the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition. JSI led the creation and engagement in the RHI with a clear vision to offer visibility into: what product was ordered by whom from which manufacturers, how much (quantity and dollar value), where it would be shipped (the recipient country), when, and to whom (the beneficiary organization). An online database provided users with access to contraceptive shipment data for more than 80% of all family planning products provided to 140 developing countries. It was the first — and only tool — of its kind and with more than 750 users at its peak, the RHI was a byword in the family planning community.
Not only was the RHI the first — and only — resource of its kind, it also was much more than a mere online data dump. The RHI’s development is a testament to trust, collaboration, country empowerment, donor support, and much effort.
A new level of trust and equity for all
“People were worried their data may include inadvertent errors or be used for negative purposes.”
At the beginning, potential data providers felt concerned about sharing vital information they felt could be used against them, explains JSI’s Jane Feinberg. “People were worried their data may include inadvertent errors or be used for negative purposes. We eventually managed to allay data providers’ fears of possible collusion and convinced them to part with their information. But it took time; it was as late as 2009 that one key provider began sharing the dollar value of their orders,” Feinberg remembers. What resulted, however, was a data source open to everybody. Users registered to access the database, and what resulted was a data source open to everybody, with additional granularity for those who expressed a need for this type of information.
Improving, not just collecting, data
“Asking an agency to provide a correct dollar amount made them more sensitive to false claims and overclaims.”
Just the act of preparing data for collection encouraged providers to take a closer look at its quality, says JSI’s Joy Kamunyori. “Asking an agency to provide a correct dollar amount made them more sensitive to false claims and overclaims,” she says. “They often had to rethink how they were storing data themselves and would fix it in their own systems before sharing it with us. We were actually helping data sources improve the quality of their own information.” This is a valuable function that Mimi Whitehouse, formerly with JSI, says should embody all community efforts, even though it calls for a high level of commitment on many sides.
Building up the RH supply community
“This is data visibility, you didn’t know what it was before, but you know now. It will help you manage your situation better. Don’t be afraid of it.Demand it!”
Data was knowledge, knowledge was power and having this power allowed supply chain staff to learn valuable lessons. “Very often, they had no perception of their roles,” remembers JSI’s Carolyn Hart. “They did not think of themselves as supply chain managers, and it was the RHSC’s Systems Strengthening working group, with the RHI, that led to a new wave of professionalization of supply chain professionals.”
The RHI also went a long way in empowering country actors, Hart says. “We were trying to make sure there was more country leadership, that funders were meeting country-determined needs and countries were playing a more active role in defining that need. We said to country-level partners: ‘This is data visibility, you didn’t know what it was before, but you know now. It will help you manage your situation better. Don’t be afraid of it. Demand it!’. The RHI was a tangible manifestation of data visibility in the supply chain and we used it to build up a much greater level of understanding than there was in the beginning.” But Feinberg is quick to point out that this was neither a fast nor easy process; it took a great deal of patience and advocacy to get these important messages across.
The RHI aimed to serve multiple needs. Hart remembers that donors were at the time weighing up the relative benefits of ploughing more money into a problem against more targeted spending. The RHI offered visibility that allowed for more informed, intuitive spending, and by looking into one another’s order information, donors were able to coordinate better and work in sync.
A wider influence
“People could pull historical data and do whatever gyrations they wanted to in Excel, getting answers to questions like ‘what’s happening in trends with male condoms?”
Campbell Bright, then supply chain and procurement manager at the UNFPA, identified many unexpected users who benefited from the tool: researchers, think tanks, countries aspiring to keep up with one another, all sought the RHI and benefited from its data. “We hadn’t thought of these uses originally, and we certainly included these possibilities more in our marketing,” she says. “People could pull historical data and do whatever gyrations they wanted to in Excel, getting answers to questions like ‘what’s happening in trends with male condoms?’ Manufacturers could also rely on the high data quality standards for contraceptives,” she says. Procurers could look into the RHI to identify down times in which they could put in their smaller orders. The RHI was also a reference in the monthly calls held by the CARhs group as they developed solutions to stock issues around the world.
20 years ahead of today’s buzzwords
When it was conceived, the RHI presented a huge technical challenge. Bringing on board data from the first three data providers was no mean feat, remembers Feinberg, saying that challenges ranged from decisions over software to the considerable amount of advocacy and stakeholder engagement necessary to get things off the ground. “It’s easy today to underestimate the challenges,” she says.
Kamunyori points to the RHI as an almost 20-year-old example of bringing multiple data sources and exchanging data between multiple information systems within the health space. “There’s a lot of buzz around that today,” she says. “Everybody’s talking about ‘interoperability’ now, but in fact, the RHI was an incredibly early model of that interoperability!”
“It is a testament to the RHI’s relevance and effectiveness that it has survived this long”, says Whitehouse.
The RHI embodies the very same spirit that imbues the RHSC, says Hart; she reminds us that the RHSC started out as the organization intended to use the data collected by the RHI. “It was the same people, for the same purpose, aimed at the same destination.”
Today, as the Global FP VAN rises to meet the community’s demands for accurate, insightful data, the collaborative spirit of the RHSC and its vast membership lives on — the same people working for the same purpose, aimed at the same destination.