What do you feel when the Star Wars end credits roll? If you’re like me, it’s an abrupt mental shift from awestruck fantasy back to real life, a reminder the movie only got made when thousands of real people collaborated towards a singular vision. If you’re nerdy enough to dive into “behind the scenes” extras, all the grunt work needed to make a blockbuster franchise looks… well… less exciting. Of course, once you discover how a film was made, you begin to appreciate its artistry on a whole other level.
I had the same feeling as I absorbed two weeks of conferencing in India with digital development and global health practitioners from around the world on behalf of Akros. At the Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) conference in Hyderabad, we joined global experts to share our practical experiences in applying new technologies across a wide spectrum of development and humanitarian programs. Akros also participated in the Health Data Collaborative’s community health experts’ consultation in Goa, The workshop convened academics, government officials, and implementers from eight countries to craft technical guidelines on digitizing mobile health data from community health workers, the volunteers who deliver critical services in the most remote regions of Africa and Asia.
From theorizing on the broad meaning of the “Data Revolution” down to nitty-gritty tech requirements of community information systems, the overarching theme of both events was mainstreaming technology into day-to-day operations of development programs. That means moving past the futuristic “gee wiz” stage of exploring what’s possible with ICT4D, towards setting practical expectations and realistic national strategies. This is very familiar territory for us at Akros, where we have a developed for applying practical informatics systems for a variety of complex development challenges, ranging from malaria prevention to education management.
Some of the tips shared at the ICT4D Conference might seem obvious in theory, but can be surprisingly rare in practice, especially in public health. For example, before you start an new system to collect community level health data, you ought to know what kind of data already exist, and ask real people how these data are used. This tactic was exemplified by Cooper/Smith, which presented a robust landscape analysis of HIV data in Malawi under the Kuunika – Data for Action! project. Their focus groups with stakeholders found over 3,527 unique data elements across five systems, informing 335 unique decisions. Detailed assessments like these will not only increase the use of routine health data for decision-making, but might catalyze new innovations to send data where its most needed. Ona presented on the tablet-based mSpray tool, deployed by Akros in Zambia, which gives managers of Indoor Residual Spray teams the localized geographic information they need to manage local spray operations. Mangologic and e-Registries also presented on two adaptive tools for health professionals to bridge individual-level patient records with population-level health management systems— two solutions which only arose from assessing what tools already exist, and finding their design inappropriate for the complex user needs.