Opinion: Why technology will power SDG success

If we are to collectively solve the world’s complex issues, we must augment the development industry’s earnest efforts with the transformative power of technology. Photo by: BroadReach

Humanity simply can’t afford to wait another 15 years for partial progress. World leaders launched the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 to address inequities in human rights, but after 15 years and only partial progress achieved, an even larger group of global leaders launched an even more ambitious set of objectives to reach by 2030 — the Sustainable Development Goals.

Setting the scene for the SDGs

As the United Nations acknowledges, “to meet the SDG health targets by 2030, progress must be accelerated, in particular in regions with the highest burden of disease.” A few statistics from SDG 3 — ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being — make that point perfectly clear:

• Maternal deaths: Achieving the target of fewer than 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births by 2030 requires a 7.5 percent annual reduction, more than double the annual rate of progress achieved from 2000 to 2015.

• Indoor air pollution — the greatest environmental health risk: In 2012, household air pollution from cooking with unclean fuels or inefficient technologies led to an estimated 4.3 million deaths, while ambient air pollution accounts for an estimated 3 million deaths.

• Premature deaths due to cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, or diabetes: 13 million in 2015, accounting for 43 percent of all premature deaths globally. From 2000 to 2015, the risk of dying between 30 and 70 years of age from one of those four causes decreased from 23 percent to 19 percent, falling short of the rate required to meet the 2030 target of a one-third reduction.

However, more of the same for the next 13 years is not going to miraculously end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure all humans have access to quality health care, education, and decent work.

Digital technology: The missing factor

If we are to collectively solve the world’s most complex issues, then we need to augment the development industry’s earnest intentions and efforts with the transformative power of technology. Digital transformation’s impact has been proven over and over again in the developed world, but is only slowly gaining traction in the emerging markets.

Digital technology and digital connectivity are fundamental to the future of every industry, from transportation to banking to retail and health care, in developed and developing economies alike.

Harvard Business School professors Marco Iansiti and Karim R. Lakhan interviewed hundreds of leaders to understand how traditional approaches to innovation and operations are changing. They shared their findings in a November 2014 Harvard Business Review article, writing: “The new paradigm is not displacement and replacement but connectivity and recombination. Transactions are being digitized, data is being generated and analyzed in new ways, and previously discrete objects, people, and activities are being connected.”

KZN health workers use mobile devices to tap into the Vantage digital platform to enter data and retrieve instructions for best-practice workflow guidelines. Photo by: BroadReach

Mobile devices: A force for equality

Two technologies are fundamental for partners working in developing markets to harness: mobile technology and artificial intelligence.

“If we are to collectively solve the world’s most complex issues, then we need to augment the development industry’s earnest intentions and efforts with the transformative power of technology.”

— John Sargent and Ernest Darkoh, founders, BroadReach

With the ubiquity of cell phone usage in emerging economies, mobile devices have the power to democratize health care through the collection and use of data from the multitudes. They have the power to unlock inclusive health care for the heretofore-invisible poor. In Kenya, for example, the “health wallet,” accessible from cell phones, removes barriers to universal access to care by transferring government funds directly into citizen accounts, even to those living in slums and remote villages. Mobile technology enables the poor to receive treatment in clinics and hospitals through electronic payment and monitoring of treatment adherence. As Dr. Kharma Rogo, lead health specialist at the World Bank and head of the bank’s Health in Africa Initiative, explains in the documentary, The Great Escape, “Mobile technology is disrupting every layer of society at an unprecedented pace. The biggest social equalizer now in this part of the world [Africa], I believe, is a cell phone.”

The BroadReach Vantage digital platform, developed to streamline our work with partners to transform public health delivery, leverages mobile technology for data collection, integration, and dissemination, as well as for collaboration. Field workers fighting the HIV epidemic in five provinces across South Africa now rely on mobile device access to Vantage to capture daily activities and facility-level information, view trends, and retrieve analysis and recommendations to improve performance. Vantage toolkits are also accessible via mobile device so that health workers in all locations can implement best practice workflows that address identified issues, such as appointment scheduling and community-based testing campaigns.

Microsoft honored our transformational work in public health service delivery for HIV care and sustained treatment at its Inspire conference in Washington, D.C., with 17,000 in attendance from across the globe. Watch the video here.

Artificial intelligence: Making sense of exploding data

Digital tech supports Regional Action Through Data program in West and East Africa

Vantage is also a foundational component of the U.S. Agency for International Development-led innovation project called Regional Action Through Data operating in 23 countries across West and East Africa. Regional economic communities will have access to data aggregated across multiple sources to enhance resource allocation, policies, and program development decisions related to tuberculosis, maternal and child health, malaria and more.

Artificial intelligence is another powerful disruptor, also having the power to boost the impact of development initiatives. AI harnesses huge volumes of data and turns it into actionable information — a process virtually impossible for humans to handle at scale, consequently drastically cutting the time, cost, and relevancy of information provided by consultants. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explains his reverence for AI, explaining how democratizing AI — making it available to any person or company — will radically improve the way computers interact with and work on behalf of humans.

The Vantage platform uses artificial intelligence to generate predictive models, such as disease prevalence by area, patient populations in need of prophylactic treatment, and staffing plans for greatest impact. And it will continue to add value to our platform as AI technology becomes more powerful and pervasive — in the cloud as well as at the device level.

Digital tech drives progress toward UNAIDS 90-90-90 Challenge

This three-minute video provides an overview of how UNAIDS, the Kwa-Zulu Natal Department of Health and BroadReach are using the Vantage cloud platform to radically simplify processes, improve analytics, and deliver actionable insights to enhance service delivery in real-time.

Configuring Vantage for the team’s needs, we are closing in on the 90-90-90 HIV Challenge goals:

• 30 percent more citizens know their HIV status

• 17 percent more are enrolled in HIV treatment and care

• 43 percent more are receiving effective therapy

Now is the time to accelerate technology adoption

To reach the 2030 SDGs finish line having achieved the goals, the development industry — NGOs, donors, governments, and the private sector — must fully embrace the transformative power of technology: the missing factor.

When leaders have data-driven insights into performance in real-time, they can move forward expeditiously. When they have AI-driven prognostic models of potential risks and opportunities, they can focus resources for optimal impact. When they have mobile access to best practice operational solutions, they can replicate reliable service delivery across multiple layers of program activity in multiple geographies. When they have consolidated data in one place, they can fulfill reporting requirements efficiently. And, when they share a platform for instantaneous communications, they can collaborate for the common good.  

To learn more about, or see a demonstration of, the Vantage technology platform built specifically for the needs of the development industry, please contact Peter Graves.

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

About the authors

  • Ernest Darkoh

    Dr. Ernest Darkoh is a co-founder of BroadReach Consulting. He is an internationally known expert in strategic health care systems planning, development and large-scale program implementation, including Botswana’s highly acclaimed Antiretroviral Treatment Program, the first African national HIV treatment program which serves as a successful model today.
  • John Sargent

    Dr. John Sargent, co-founder of BroadReach, is recognized globally as a health care solutions thought­ leader in market development strategy, health systems analytics and optimization, and public­-private partnerships in emerging markets.