Dr. Sandro Galea, chair of the 3-D Commission. Photo by: Stuart Isett / Fortune Brainstorm Health / CC BY-NC-ND

BRUSSELS — A new 25-member commission convened by the Rockefeller Foundation and Boston University will focus on how global decision-makers can better use burgeoning data on the wide range of factors influencing people’s health.

The group, including representatives from IBM and Facebook, is designed to engage policymakers “to integrate data and social determinants into their decision-making.”

“It’s actually quite difficult to engage elected officials in something which requires a meaningful, sustained contribution — that’s just the reality.”

— Sandro Galea, dean, Boston University School of Public Health

The foundation explained in a press release that technological advances now allow for more data to be collected on the economic, social, and political factors that influence people’s health. The “3-D Commission” — on health determinants, data, and decision-making — partly aims to examine the social and economic levers that influence health outcomes.

Commission chair Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, told Devex there was “a growing sense of frustration” that “housing decisions, transportation decisions, wage decisions, taxation decisions, are not made bearing health in mind. And as a result [the world] has not quite advanced on health achievements as we could.”

Asked about data privacy concerns, Galea said the issue will “definitely” form part of the commission’s work, writing in an email that “these are issues that are of concern to all of us doing this work.”

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He declined to say how much the commission will cost, indicating only that it will be funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, with Boston University overseeing the project and health strategy firm Rabin Martin serving as its secretariat.

The group, which has already had its first virtual meeting, intends to submit a report to next year’s United Nations General Assembly, and then wind down at the end of 2021. Naveen Rao, senior vice president for health at the Rockefeller Foundation, told Devex that he hopes the report will provide “an action plan, a roadmap” for decision-makers, involving a “crisp set of actionable items” that the group can then advocate for.

Despite the emphasis on action, Galea said the pair chose not to involve elected officials directly, though they hope they will benefit from the “groundswell of thinking” on the topic.

“It’s actually quite difficult to engage elected officials in something which requires a meaningful, sustained contribution — that’s just the reality,” Galea said. “And the people who we did engage I think are the people who are in ongoing, longer-term partnership with the elected officials.”

Commission members include Katie Dain, CEO of the NCD Alliance; Jane Ambuko, associate professor of the Department of Plant Science and Crop Protection at the University of Nairobi; and Eric Goosby, the United Nations special envoy on tuberculosis, as well as representatives from Microsoft Healthcare NExT, IBM, and Facebook.

Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology at University College London, led a World Health Organization report on the social determinants of health in 2008, though he is not part of the new commission. That report argued that “social injustice is killing on a grand scale,” Marmot wrote to Devex in an email, and called for improved living conditions, tackling the unequal distribution of power and resources, and better measuring of health inequality.

“If the new 3D Commission is continuing in that effort, good. I would hope that it builds on what we did, using best data and evidence to influence policy,” Marmot wrote.

Sandro Demaio, CEO at the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation in Australia told Devex by email that though there is broad consensus on social determinants’ role in good health, they are often difficult to define and impossible to track.

“The age and availability of real-time, big and ambient data present profound opportunities to finally operationalise and leverage the deep and diverse drivers of wellbeing,” Demaio wrote.

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.