A community health worker conducts an interview with a mother for the Malaria Indicator Survey via tablet to measure progress towards achieving malaria control goals and targets. Photo by: Jordan Burns / President's Malaria Initiative

In many parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, malaria kills far too many young children. Children have a harder time fighting off the disease than adults: Of the estimated 440,000 people who died of malaria last year, 70 percent of them were under 5 years old. Thanks to heroic efforts by the World Bank, the Global Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and many others, malaria is down by 60 percent since 2000.

One of the many tools we have used to control the mosquitoes that carry the disease is indoor residual spraying — applying insecticide directly to the walls of families’ homes. It is most effective when a critical tipping point is reached by spraying at least 80 percent of homes in an area.

That can be difficult. Last year, in parts of Mozambique, spray teams discovered that there were more homes than they had estimated — and they weren’t reaching the 80 percent of homes needed for vector control.

Better data can help fight malaria

Geospatial data and analysis can help us better design, monitor, manage and assess malaria prevention programs. Often, malaria spray teams are working with outdated or incomplete maps of communities. Without accurate information on the location of buildings, spray teams might duplicate efforts or miss some buildings entirely.

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Crowdsourcing can help fill in this information gap. For example, at a White House Mapathon in July, students in the U.S. and Africa used satellite imagery to create a map of the Zambezia province of Mozambique, identifying and mapping homes for spray teams. It will be used to plan future spraying campaigns, helping malaria prevention programs reach that critical threshold of 80 percent of homes.

This valuable work and more is being supported by the YouthMappers University Consortium, which was launched this year to bring together students from all around the world to build maps on OpenStreetMap, an open data platform. YouthMappers, in coordination with the Peace Corps and many others from the open data community, is now feeding into the President’s Malaria Initiative.

Participants in the White House Mapathon in July 2016. Photo by: USAID

Real-time data could further accelerate our progress

Real-time data has the potential to go even further by helping healthcare organizations to adapt more quickly to malaria outbreaks in a community. For example, PATH’s new partnership with the Tableau Foundation is working to break the cycle of transmission in Zambia by using real-time data and data visualizations to “decide when, where and how to implement lifesaving interventions.” In the first two years of the program, the proportion of malaria cases detected and treated during transmission season increased to more than half.

Better decision-making matters in a world where the funding gap for the Sustainable Development Goals reaches into the trillions. Real-time data can give us immediate insights into what is working and what is not, enabling us to monitor interventions closely, and improve learning and adapting while programs are underway. These rapid feedback loops can lead to better outcomes at a government level as well as on the front line.

Data matters beyond malaria

We have a big opportunity in global development right now. Thanks in part to game-changing advances in information and communications technology, we have better data and tools to analyze development programs, projects, and outcomes than ever before. That means we can make better decisions that result in more effective programs and better results for communities around the world.

That’s why one of the Principles for Digital Development is, “Be data-driven.” But it’s not simple: We need to not only collect data, but also analyze it and adapt our interventions as a result. It takes a sustained effort to build interoperable data systems, cross-validate data sources, and analyze outcomes. But the rewards are worth it.

Many governments and nongovernmental organizations are still stuck with slow, incomplete data sets, but we have made real progress in the last decade. At the U.S. Global Development Lab, we saw this clearly when we awarded the Data2Action prize for the best examples of data-driven decision-making in USAID field programs. They ranged from mapping food insecurity in Nepal to using citizen feedback for post-conflict reconciliation in Mali to optimizing electricity distribution using sensors in Pakistan. Now, USAID is launching an initiative to research, design, and test how real-time data systems can enable a more adaptive, agile and inclusive approach to development.

There are countless other examples. All over the world, there are incredible innovations happening in data-driven decision-making. And the future is even brighter. The Gates Foundation, UNICEF Innovation, Catholic Relief Services, USAID and many others are laying the groundwork for these data systems and they are getting better all the time. By helping us make smart decisions, they will transform development in every sector.

With potential to change the trajectory of crises, such as famines or the spread of diseases, the innovative use of data will drive a new era for global development. Throughout this monthlong Data Driven discussion, Devex and partners — the Agence Française de Développement, BroadReach, Chemonics and Johnson & Johnson — will explore how the data revolution is changing our approach to achieving development outcomes and reshaping the future of our industry. Help us drive the conversation forward by tagging #DataDriven and @devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Ann Mei Chang

    Ann Mei Chang is the chief innovation officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development and executive director of the U.S. Global Development Lab. The Lab is the newest bureau at USAID and aims to transform global development through science, technology, innovation, and partnerships. Prior to USAID, Ann Mei was the chief innovation officer at Mercy Corps, an international NGO. She also served as the senior adviser for women and technology in the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State. In addition to her work in the public sector, Ann Mei has more than 20 years of engineering and leadership experience in Silicon Valley.