The Facebook login page. Photo by: WDNet Studio

An April Facebook post features Felipe Tavares kissing his infant daughter born with microcephaly. In the text, he explains how, ever since his daughter was born with the birth defect linked to Zika, he has worked to provide fathers across Brazil with the support they need to return to their families so mothers aren’t raising their babies alone.

Designed to engage men as allies in the fight against Zika, the ad from UNICEF was based on an insight from Facebook that 58 percent of posts about Zika in Brazil came from men.

“This outbreak has been one of the first public health emergencies where digital communication tools have the opportunity to fundamentally improve how populations become aware of and respond to the outbreak impacting their communities,” wrote Erica Kochi, head of UNICEF Futures, in a post providing further details on the partnership with Facebook. “Trends in online interactions and patterns can inform our interventions and make them more effective.

Facebook pulled together anonymized insights from Facebook posts about the Zika conversation in Brazil, where more than 90 percent of the population use the platform every month, according to the company. The social media giant shared the results with UNICEF, which incorporated those learnings into a data driven campaign that led to 82 percent of those reached taking action to protect themselves against Zika, according to Kochi. The ad campaign also went beyond Zika, with another post calling on people to protect themselves from other illnesses transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

The partnership, which will be discussed in greater detail this week at the Connected Health Conference in Washington, D.C., is one of a growing number of examples of public private partnerships turning real-time data into actionable insights to counter global epidemics.

UNICEF has formed a new team of data scientists to explore how new forms of data — which can capture many different parts of human behavior and policy and environmental patterns on a mass scale — can be analyzed to help the global development community better understand disease epidemics such as Zika, Chris Fabian, who co-leads UNICEF Innovations along with Kochi, told Devex.

“Bringing together the private sector with contributions of their aggregated data sets, their technical knowhow and combining it with UNICEF’s reach, development expertise and mandate to improve the lives of children is new and unique,” Fabian told Devex.

UNICEF is not alone in thinking through new ways to get the right message to the right audience at the right time in order to affect behavior change. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, invited Facebook to a pitch session, which was part of the review process for its “Combating Zika and Future Threats” grand challenge. That initial outreach evolved into a partnership.

See a larger version of the infographic here.

“By bringing them to the table, and making them aware of some of these challenges, you’re sparking their own creative thinking on the role they can play in solving these problems,” Wendy Taylor, director of the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact at USAID, told Devex, adding that these types of engagements can set progress on global health and development goals “at warp speed.”

Now, Facebook is working with one of the winners of the challenge, the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, whose Rapid Habit Optimizational Tool uses local data to inform behavior change strategies to help people do their part to control the mosquito problem themselves. Insights from the data will inform what groups to target and messages to craft in order to spread the practice of consistent cleaning of standing water in Honduras and Guatemala.

“We can understand how people are thinking about the disease and we can do so quickly in near real time at a very low cost,” Molly Jackman, who leads policy focused research at Facebook, told Devex of the value the social media company brings to UNICEF.

Facebook is in the process of growing its public policy team to engage with other organizations, building on this proof of concept partnership with UNICEF in Brazil, she added.

The global health community has traditionally looked to surveys or focus groups to ensure that their health promotion campaigns speak directly to public concerns, but these methods tend to be slower, more expensive, and less representative, she said.

“Think about your research question so we know how we can help and we know how to scale that help,” Jackman said, explaining that Facebook is looking for opportunities to work with organizations such as UNICEF that can leverage social media data for real-world social impact. “We want to share insights with them that are privacy preserving and will have really actionable policy implications.”

Global health organizations are reaching out to Facebook because they know that community engagement is critical for outbreak response, that social media conversations offer invaluable insights, and that Facebook is the largest social network in the world. Still, while data from text messages to Facebook posts to satellite images can offer key insights, they also raise privacy concerns. That’s why, in its pursuit of partnerships around data, Facebook has developed privacy and research review boards, as well as security teams to ensure that personally identifiable information is not transmitted, Jackman said.

Photo from: UNICEF Brazil Facebook

USAID’s Taylor mentioned Google and Microsoft, in addition to Facebook, as commercial partners the agency has focused on engaging. Representatives of each of these three tech companies will speak at the Connected Health Conference in Washington this week, on sessions ranging from leveraging data for public health to extending internet connectivity to the last mile.

According to the agenda, participants will not only learn about data resources currently available on Facebook, but also have the opportunity to provide input about what more Facebook could do to partner with the global health community. The forum will also see heavier private sector engagement this year, said Heidi Good Boncana, co-chair of the Global Digital Health Forum, which is part of the Connected Health Conference.

“We’ve never seen this level of private sector involvement in the forum before and I think it signals global recognition of the importance of digital health as both as business investment and a driver of improved health outcomes,” she said.

For more Devex coverage on global health, visit Focus On: Global Health

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.