How to Harvest the Health Data Revolution
Data is the last great hope for African development, heralded by leaders from the AU to the UN as the new currency of performance and accountability. Smoother data sharing might make chaotic traffic more streamlined, hold leaders accountable for public funds, or even help epidemiologists predict the path of ebola. The universal link between quality data and quality healthcare is particularly instructive. In developed countries like the United States, for example, sharing electronic health records will be fundamental for broadening access to care.
But if African healthcare professionals don’t believe the hype, the skeptic in me can’t blame them. Faced with the complexities of healthcare in developing countries, “open data” seems a reductive and naïve option. Doctors already go to school for eight to ten years, and besides, reporting to cloud-based databases through feature phone technology could distract them from their day jobs. And why on earth would they want to risk sharing patients’ sensitive data anyway?
To answer these questions on public health data, let’s hear some experts on food security:
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I think it has become much more commonplace to talk about food systems and to see food security as not just a question of production but also of consumption, governance and processing.
Population biologist, University of Oxford
The problem here isn’t production. It’s distribution, income and political realities. If we rearranged the current food supply, made it more fair and efficient, we could eliminate hunger today.
– Chris Arsenault
Food Security Correspondent, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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These quotes come from a recent Reuters report entitled “How Will We Fill 9 Billion Bowls?”, a beautiful and intensive introduction to the future of food security. Aside from the obvious linkages between agriculture and health (nutrition, immunodeficiency, economic well-being, etc.), I’m fascinated by both fields’ multidisciplinary approach to distribution challenges. In essence, they each gather massive, frequent tranches of data, and share with diverse perspectives.
As I’m learning through my year with Global Health Corps at Akros, equitable health access is not just about more doctors and high-tech equipment, but also about behavior change, policy, and logistics. We live in a world where you can help end global hunger without stepping foot on a farm, and you can help stop preventable disease without going to med school. With a mercurial climate and denser population in our future, adapting food production and public health systems will require exogenous shocks–innovators from outside the usual food chain of expertise, if you will.
One way to adapt is to increase efficiency in our markets and supply chains. Luckily, efficiency-minded tools in food security and health are increasingly viable. Reuters reports on mobile apps for rural farmers to learn current market conditions, surveillance drones to detect crop disease outbreaks, and urban “vertical” farms that produce 26 harvests per year. At Akros, we build tools to help people map their district’s malaria vulnerability, predict vaccine shortages at their local clinic, and track latrine usage in remote villages. Technology is no silver bullet in any field. But thanks to these new data collection tools, we can learn more about our present system’s inefficiencies and adjust accordingly.
Here’s the twist: by reducing these nuanced issues to statistics, data is actually a great leveler. It broadens the possible contribution base in the fight for fairer access to basic human needs. At the ground level, understanding such data cultivates a sense of ownership over one’s land, economic mobility, healthcare, and the community in which one lives. This is why open datasets on topics like health access and food security are so important. These are public issues rooted in the community, which demand democratic dialogue and locally-owned solutions. Sharing these data starts a conversation worth having.
So if you want to join this conversation, I invite you to explore the expert opinions and detailed infographics of “9 billion bowls.” As I did, you might come away with fresh perspective on how merging open data with scientific breakthroughs can make meeting any monumental challenge a little more plausible.
About Brian O’Donnell
Brian O’Donnell is an Health Informatics Officer for Akros and a 2015/2016 Global Health Corps fellow. Prior to joining Akros, Brian was a project manager at AidData. He holds a Master of Public Affairs from The University of Texas-Austin and a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William & Mary.