The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the value of data-driven insights. In 2020, we were reminded daily that local data is often more valuable than national data; a 10% increase in national infections sounds bad, but a 10% increase in your neighborhood is cause for immediate concern and action. Identifying local risks and hot spots enables individuals to make better decisions and local policymakers to pursue necessary adjustments in their planning.
The emphasis on local data that we have seen during the pandemic also offers a lesson for the international development community: The collection and analysis of local data is critical, and the availability of data skills for both rural and urban areas is essential to sound development decisions, during the pandemic and beyond. There is work to be done in foreign assistance to build data skills where they are most needed.
Data can save lives, but only if it is used effectively
Recognizing the rising COVID-19 numbers in the densely populated South African township of Khayelitsha, Médecins Sans Frontières established a new treatment facility in a single month, saving lives in the resource-scarce community. But this is an unusual example; most communities lack the data analysis capability to identify and respond to local trends.
It is no surprise that the top “hard skills” for 2020 related to data science expertise, including cloud computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. These capabilities, however, are scarce, especially in places where they are needed the most to drive effective health response, economic growth, and resilience in an increasingly digital world.
Since 2015, Data Collaboratives for Local Impact has worked to demonstrate the benefits of local data use to improve the sustainability of HIV programs, support gender equality, and enable growth. DCLI, a partnership between the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, has empowered more than 2,000 data experts — including near a hundred data scientists — and supported over 50 innovations to give community organizations and leaders the information they need to make decisions that are more informed.
DCLI’s work has resulted in more effective resource allocation, the prioritization of community needs based on data, and local ownership of countries’ HIV responses.
Increasing local data capacity
In Tanzania, DCLI has created a public good: the locally led, self-sustaining Tanzania Data Lab, or dLab, which continues to build the country’s capabilities to create data insights.
Working in partnership with the International Research & Exchanges Board and local government, the dLab completed an innovative study of capacity gaps in 30 health facilities of the Kyela district in southwestern Tanzania. A data flow survey identified an active culture of sharing information and a collaborative decision-making process with community members. However, it also showed limited capacity to use existing data and digital systems for decisions to improve services and allocate budgets based on local health trends and priorities.
What emerged was a clear picture of the skills needed and a road map to acquire them. The dLab is now working with the President’s Office, Regional Administration and Local Government to determine how training and improved processes can be rolled out to the nearly 6,000 public health facilities across Tanzania.
Similarly, in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire’s largest city, an opportunity arose to improve HIV and general health outcomes through better use of already existing data.
DCLI’s Des Chiffres et Des Jeunes project trained 89 data fellows, placing them at ministries and other locations in need of better data skills, including 23 priority health facilities. These fellows efficiently strengthened data use at the health facilities through rapidly implemented solutions, such as a site performance dashboard, medical file organization, and training staff members to find insights using Microsoft Power BI, yielding immediate improvement.
Rather than spending time entering data into existing systems and “reporting up,” the staff can now derive insights leading to immediate action, such as noticing that fewer patients are returning for treatment.
Getting the right insights faster
Local skills also lead to systemic improvements: One of the trained fellows, Ali Diakité, improved data aggregation at the Côte d'Ivoire National AIDS Control Program by creating a tool that automates the process of gathering data from several disparate datasets, compiling it into a single database in a matter of minutes. Previously, this process took weeks, and the data was eight months old by the time it was published. Now, the data is less than a month old when it is released and can be used in real time to change health conditions in the country.
DCLI’s experience in Côte d'Ivoire and Tanzania shows that targeted technical support, staff training, and locally driven innovations can significantly improve the ways that health facilities, NGOs, and government agencies use data to deliver better outcomes for communities.
The pandemic provided an important lesson that we cannot afford to waste: The development community must invest more in local data skills. A commitment of at least 2% of investments focused on local data use could prepare communities to navigate future crises and empower them to make sound use of limited resources. Failure to do this will leave disadvantaged communities at greater risk and further behind.