When good leadership meets smart technology

When good leadership meets smart technology

By Parysa Oskouipour on October 30, 2019 in Health Data Systems, Malaria, News

On a sweltering summer day in Siavonga, a lakeside jewel of Zambia’s Southern Province, I sat down with Mr. Bisael Phiri, the District Surveillance Officer for Siavonga District, to get his perspective on the malaria situation in his region and at large in Zambia. A breeze lazily floating through an open window and a small desktop fan provided the only reprieve from the oppressive heat as we got down to brass tacks about the progress made in the last few seasons of malaria interventions and how Reveal has impacted that progress.

Team members using Reveal-enabled tablets during an IRS campaign.

Mr. Phiri has been working in public health for several years, and is a big picture thinker when it comes to tackling malaria in Zambia. His motivations to work in this field are straightforward, “I know the kind of impact that good health can have on people’s lives. I wanted to do this work to help change the environment so it doesn’t constitute a danger to the public.” His work is based in one of the select districts of Southern Province that utilizes Reveal for their indoor residual spraying (IRS), mass drug administration (MDA), and reactive IRS malaria interventions through a PATH MACEPA and Akros-implemented program. Reveal is a powerful, open-source platform that aids in household-level intervention management and data authenticity by using spatial intelligence and smart planning tools. Mr. Phiri stresses that learning how to use this technology is self-explanatory and that the dashboards, which are tailored to his administrative level, greatly assist his day-to-day responsibilities. In his own words, “the dashboard is important to view on a daily basis because it identifies the status of various teams and shows us where we need to go and where the problem areas are. When we have this information, we can change our strategy based on how well our teams are performing, and change targets midway if need be. For instance, if I didn’t receive updated data from a certain district, I would not know that there’s an issue there. Now because I have these data, I would be able to make a quick plan for how best to move forward with that district.”

Beyond program planning, Mr. Phiri’s work is strengthened by the hard proof the platform provides that work is being done where it is supposed to be done.

Reveal takes aim at malaria parasite through mass drug administration campaigns in Southern Province, Zambia

Reveal takes aim at malaria parasite through mass drug administration campaigns in Southern Province, Zambia

By Parysa Oskouipour on September 18, 2019 in Health Data Systems, Malaria, News

Deep in Zambia’s Southern Province, in a town a three-hour drive away from the district’s largest city and economic hub (Siavonga), lies Manchamvwa Health Facility. This clinic serves as the focal point for the health needs of hundreds of people who live in the surrounding villages, and as such, is often overwhelmed with the many health needs of its patients. Malaria season in particular tends to put a great strain on the facility, with peak periods in previous years seeing anywhere from 100 to 200 cases per month.

Over the last couple of years, the Government of the Republic of Zambia (GRZ), with the assistance of Akros and PATH’s Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Malaria Control and Elimination Partnership in Africa (MACEPA), have been working with the National Malaria Elimination Program district staff to overcome these numbers and improve the health of the local community by using geospatial technology to optimize indoor residual spraying (IRS) campaigns. Recently, the two organizations teamed up again to be the first to ever use Reveal’s spatial intelligence approach to maximize reach and ensure accountability in a mass drug administration (MDA) campaign that distributed antimalarials to the doorstep of each community member in three districts of Southern Province.

Lake Kariba’s still, glistening waters at sunset.

The recent history of malaria in Southern Province is one of resounding progress thus far. Due to its proximity to Lake Kariba’s glistening, still water, it is unfortunately a heavily malaria-burdened region by nature. But malaria in this region is highly seasonal, linked to the annual arrival of rainfall from December to April, leaving ample overgrowth and standing water—prime mosquito-breeding real estate. This seasonality provides an attractive window through which most interventions have taken aim. The result has been an impressive decrease in prevalence of malaria parasitaemia among children less than five years of age, from 15.5% in 2006, to 5.5% in 2010, and 0.0% in 2018.1,2 Trends like these make Southern Province appealing as a prime candidate for malaria elimination. However, despite overall improvement in the province’s malaria burden at large, districts directly adjacent to the lake are still at higher risk, as malaria cases have shown to be persistently high in some health facilities despite ongoing interventions.

To propel Southern Province closer to elimination, in 2014 MACEPA supported the national program with a malaria MDA research study in the Southern Province districts lining Lake Kariba, an area with an estimated population of 300,000 people. The rapid malaria reduction in the study area resulted in Zambia adding MDA to its arsenal of interventions in 2017. The country’s experience of malaria MDA—two rounds with one month in between doses­—has shown it to be an effective intervention in areas with a strong foundation of vector control, case management, and surveillance. Recognizing that MDA campaigns are most effective when every household and individual in the targeted region are reached, MACEPA engaged Akros for its technical expertise in introducing Reveal as a novel approach to maximize the impact of MDA for malaria control and elimination in this area.

Operationalizing spatial intelligence means saving lives

Operationalizing spatial intelligence means saving lives

By Anna Winters on March 21, 2019 in Health Data Systems, Malaria, News

As a spatial epidemiology PhD student, I was drawn to questions about how the environment relates to and facilitates vector-borne disease (diseases that are spread by vectors like mosquitos). These questions and interests tend to lead spatial epidemiology graduate school students (like I was) straight into the land of building spatial models. We effectively try to understand how measures like wetness, greenness, and elevation may combine mathematically to tell us where high numbers of mosquitoes live. If those mosquitoes live near human hosts, or even animals, there may be greater risk of vector-borne diseases.

So, I too built a lot of maps and models during graduate school. I mapped the risk of West Nile virus (WNV) in Colorado, USA. At the time, WNV had, somewhat shockingly, erupted in that region of the US. I also modeled human plague in Uganda—effectively developing maps to precisely depict areas at high and low risk of plague transmission. “Target interventions where it’s red” was the more-or-less summary, where red equaled high-risk areas. Point made. Thesis closed. Safe on the shelf.

But here I sit on the other end of the world, far away from hallowed academic halls that are often lined with dead dissertations and theses like mine. Here in southern Africa, disease transmission is much more tangible. Before, I read about death rates due to malaria and HIV from my school in Colorado, US. Here, I witness the impact of those death rates every day when I drop my kids off at school—new graves being dug closer and closer to the road. I am involved with a local school that is inundated with orphans and vulnerable children—even from one of the more affluent regions of Zambia. In this environment, high morbidity and mortality rates are incessant. Help is highly dependent on securing increasingly limited resources. Navigating the challenging logistics of getting those resources to the right people at the right time and in the right place are often broken. However, despite the acute need to target limited resources, mapping approaches like the one I developed in school are rarely seen nor used to inform interventions.

It is time for the public health community—both globally and locally—to do business differently. It’s time to more appropriately lean on the idea of spatial intelligence through epidemiological and map-based approaches to inform the practice of intervention planning and delivery. Academic, math-based modeling can lend a good understanding of where and how we should focus our limited resources to save the most lives. “Why aren’t these approaches being actively used?” you might ask. Part of the challenge is a lack of tools and finite planning approaches to translate maps and models into operational, boots on the ground, public health programming decisions. Questions like, “Where are all the houses located?,” “Which houses exactly should receive the intervention based upon the model output?,” and “Has the intervention effectively reached everywhere it was targeted?” are challenging to assess, particularly in regions like here in southern Africa, where so many areas consist of rural villages with no addresses.

Spatial approaches, when used correctly and operationalized simply and efficiently, can maximize the effectiveness of an intervention. By changing strategy and implementing smartly, we can turn those dusty maps and models into actionable, impactful strategies. Akros has worked hard to make smart, yet simple, mapping approaches useful for in-field operations. With our partner, Ona, we have designed and developed Reveal (and its predecessor, mSpray) to effectively support field staff to plan and guide interventions by applying spatial intelligence.  This includes determining where people live, where the risk of disease transmission is highest, and then prioritizing what villages and households must receive interventions to ensure that no one is missed.

After several years of refining this approach, we are now seeing the tangible results that we, intrinsically, knew would follow. Interventions are more effective. Because of the Reveal approach, fewer people are contracting malaria. And the approach is widely relevant to multiple other diseases as well. I am motivated to move the needle much faster, though. I refuse to complacently watch those grave sites move closer and closer to the road while millions of dollars are spent on public health, and so many of the right disease cures are already in hand. So here at Akros, we remain standing at the juncture between academic theory, innovation, and in-field application, continuing to push for new and better solutions to marry these ideas and save lives. These solutions may not be the shiniest tools that dazzle audiences at conferences, but they have been tried, tested, and developed right next to where the most severe health crises exist… and they are working.

About Anna Winters

Anna Winters founded and serves as the CEO of Akros. Winters holds a PhD and MS in epidemiology coupled with extensive field experience leading the development and implementation of community-wide surveillance systems in sub-saharan Africa aimed at targeting health interventions to maximize impact. Through Akros and previously with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Winters works directly with host country governments to ensure viability and integration of health innovations. Contact her at awinters@akros.com

The Inside of Context is King

The Inside of Context is King

By Anna Winters on January 31, 2019 in Capacity Building, Health Data Systems, News

Akros is a bit different than most development NGOs. Instead of a large corporate office in a distant setting, Akros bases its team in Southern Africa. If we are solving problems in rural developing contexts, shouldn’t we be near enough to the challenges so we understand them? We have chosen to be close to the beneficiaries of our work to receive feedback, learn from what works and what doesn’t, and provide simple yet innovative solutions to the everyday problems that are faced. Since our goal is to provide support to communities and their governments and to transition lessons learned into sustainable programs, shouldn’t we work very closely with our government partners both in the office and in the rural communities we serve?

We think yes. And that’s driven our design.

At Akros, we bring innovative ideas for gathering and using data to solve development challenges through a “boots on the ground” approach. We’ve built our organizational culture and nuanced approach to implementation by being where our work is: in Southern Africa. Akros has been supporting government and partner counterparts from our headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia for over ten years. This close partnership has helped to contextualize our work and to ensure that we are only scaling ideas and approaches that are proven to make impact and be sustained in under-resourced settings.

Being close to the challenges has meant the solutions that we’ve fostered gain ownership by community leaders. This type of accountability has created a huge impact. In Zambia, a chief’s wishes and commands hold a lot of weight. Getting these leaders data about their community, talking to them about health standards, and teaching them about health promotion and awareness can mean significant positive change for rural areas. For example, in some rural communities, open defecation was quite common. Our people went into communities, brought data and statistical evidence to the chiefs in formats they appreciated, and succeeded to get these community leaders on board with several water and sanitation interventions. Chiefs encouraged their communities to build latrines and use them. And then, the people did! The problem and effects of open defecation were therefore greatly reduced. The result was that some of the first open defecation free districts in all of Africa were named within Zambia.

If we had been based far from the situation, we may have missed the nuances of the problem by being outside of its context. We may have designed solutions that were too tech heavy for the environment. We may have created a “mobile tool” but not helped build an enabling environment for its success. We may not have understood how chiefdoms work and just gone into the situation blindly, wasting time and resources. We may have done “business as usual” and missed our mark. In short, we may have not made the impact on health that we strive to make.

There’s a joke in here somewhere about inside jobs. But for now, we’ll just say that at Akros, context is king.

About Anna Winters

Anna Winters founded and serves as the CEO of Akros. Winters holds a PhD and MS in epidemiology coupled with extensive field experience leading the development and implementation of community-wide surveillance systems in sub-saharan Africa aimed at targeting health interventions to maximize impact. Through Akros and previously with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Winters works directly with host country governments to ensure viability and integration of health innovations. Contact her at awinters@akros.com

It’s all about the maps

It’s all about the maps

By Anna Winters on January 15, 2019 in Health Data Systems, News

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out big goals and targets—and countries are making real progress in some cases. Under five mortality has reduced by 58% in under 20 years. New drugs and vaccines are continuously coming to market. Some diseases, like polio and guinea worm, are nearing elimination.

Even still, large gaps remain. Every day, 3,000 children die from malaria. About 100,000 children die from HIV-related causes each year. These are diseases that are entirely preventable and treatable. Malaria is controlled with mosquito bed nets, antimalarial treatment courses, and insecticides. Antiretroviral treatments are making it possible for people living with HIV to live a long, healthy life.

If solutions exist, then why do we continue to see such levels of morbidity and mortality in the developing world? Too often it comes down to a lack of the right tools in the right place and at the right time. In seventeen malaria endemic countries in Africa, for example, indoor residual spraying (IRS) is used at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per year to kill mosquito vectors of malaria. In many cases, this tool is not achieving its full potential of reducing malaria, in part because it is not distributed to obtain a high enough true coverage. The World Health Organization tells us that IRS must be applied to at least 85% of a community in order to reach “true” coverage. Given the costs and the lack of enough resources to go around, the impact of this intervention sways further away from optimally saving lives from malaria.

Akros featured in recent reports

Akros featured in recent reports

By Akros Media on August 28, 2017 in Capacity Building, Health Data Systems, Malaria, News, Uncategorized, Water and Sanitation Health

We strive to be consistently on the cutting edge of the development and technology sector. And the cutting edge does not form without a stalwart commitment to research and a collecting of best practices. We are excited to have been mentioned in several recent pieces of independent research as having implemented technologies and systems that are furthering development work around the world.


Mobile Solutions for Malaria Elimination Surveillance Systems: A Roadmap

The first is in a report titled “Mobile Solutions for Malaria Elimination Surveillance Systems: A Roadmap” funded by the Gates Foundation and carried out by Vital Wave. The study was done to “develop key recommendations regarding appropriate, scalable strategies to promote further innovation and coordination among technology partners” and to “Develop specific recommendations for a coherent and effective Foundation strategy for strengthening data collection systems and associated platforms.” Our mSpray system was featured as a highlight of the geolocation category for the way it increases the efficiency and effectiveness of indoor residual spraying (IRS) campaigns (page 48 of the report).

In its conclusions and recommendations, the report points out that “many of the key elements needed to improve the development and implementation of robust mobile tools for malaria surveillance already exist.” It also says that coordination among malaria program implementers will be key to success and will help keep current the list of necessary features within these digital tools.

Akros in India: Perspectives on ICT4D

Akros in India: Perspectives on ICT4D

By Brian O'Donnell on June 20, 2017 in Health Data Systems, News

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.

The Elimination 8 Regional Surveillance Database (ERSD)

The Elimination 8 Regional Surveillance Database (ERSD)

By Annie Martin on May 8, 2017 in Capacity Building, Health Data Systems, Malaria, News

To achieve malaria elimination, an understanding of neighboring country malaria situations is critical for the prevention of introduction of parasites. Malaria parasites don’t stop at country borders, so effective elimination strategies shouldn’t either. That is why the Elimination 8 (E8), in its strategy on cross-border collaboration, identified Akros to support the development of the E8 Regional Surveillance Database System (ERSD) for the eight member states constituting the E8: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. This innovative approach is a means to level the playing field and conduct malaria surveillance at a regional scale.

Figure 1. Cross-border incidence* in districts in Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe: Having access to several countries in one database allows these kinds of visualizations, which may highlight transmission patterns that occur between countries, which in turn supports decisions to invest in control methods in border areas.
*All data shown is used purely for illustrative purposes and do not reflect current or historic epidemiological status of countries. Current data can be accessed in the database itself by those granted authority.

Malaria is hardly an emerging disease, and though the interventions of preventing, treating, and monitoring malaria are somewhat standardized, each country has slight permutations of their approach to doing so. Indicators may differ slightly, investment in one prevention method versus another likely differs too, and policies surrounding implementation certainly are not identical.

Mobile Platform Enables Unprecedented Sanitation Uptake in Zambia

Mobile Platform Enables Unprecedented Sanitation Uptake in Zambia

By Akros Media on February 15, 2017 in Health Data Systems, News, Water and Sanitation Health

CLTS has been shown to be an effective method to combat malnutrition and stunting in children under five. In this study, a mobile-to-web platform increased the uptake of CLTS even further, allowing for greater community feedback, a reduced cost per new user of sanitation, and increased data transparency.

Akros, in partnership with Zambia’s Ministry of Local Government and Housing (MLGH) and UNICEF, layered a unique mobile-to-web application over traditional CLTS delivery methods, resulting in an innovative service delivery and monitoring system dubbed “CLTS M2W.”

CLTS M2W uses mobile phones, automated data feedback loops, and engagement of traditional leaders to provide communities with the ability to clearly see their progress towards sanitation goals. CLTS M2W paved the way for unprecedented CLTS uptake in Zambia, facilitating the creation of over 1,500,000 new users of sanitation in 18 months. In short, CLTS creates the demand, and CLTS M2W creates the critical transparency necessary to drive sustained behavior change.

Read the full study in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Read this and more CLTS-related news on the CLTS Knowledge Hub.