Mike Bloomberg speaks with public health leaders and government officials to discuss the Data for Health initiative's progress to improve public health data for 1 billion people worldwide. Photo by: Bloomberg Philanthropies

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The four-year Bloomberg Data for Health initiative is set to end in March, with no current signs of a renewal of funding. But it has been fundamental in spurring global action on civil registration and vital statistics, or CRVS data, including at the United Nations World Data Forum in October.

Philip Setel, the director of CRVS at the Data for Health’s implementing partner Vital Strategies, spoke to Devex on the sidelines of the forum about the future of the initiative — and what may be left up in the air without a renewal of funding.

Building capacity and establishing networks

The Bloomberg Data for Health initiative supports improvements in birth and death registration data in 20 countries, including Brazil, China, Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Turkey. It has established the verbal autopsy process, an innovative approach that allows data to be collected and cause of death to be assigned even away from a hospital or medical service provider.

With countries such as Canada and organizations including the U.N., World Bank, and World Health Organization taking leading roles on CRVS globally, Setel said Data for Health is working closely with these stakeholders to play a critical role in contributing to the knowledge base as well as keeping it on the data agenda.

“There aren’t too many competing paradigms of how to go about this work,” Setel said. “I think we are being very conscious of understanding the stakeholder landscape, the donor landscape, the implementer landscape, and making sure people are pulling together when it comes to offering technical guidance, support at the country level ...”

This includes work from the University of Melbourne to create a CRVS Knowledge Gateway, which supports the delivery of learning resources to support capacity building within developing countries.

“We’ve been able to hone the materials we have that are agnostics to country contexts,” Setel said. “That said, there are important bookends that need to be contextualized for each country. For examples, certifying cause of death should not be country-specific — a heart attack should be certified the same way anywhere. But in order to inspire, engage, and motivate stakeholders, the approach and design of content should be specific to the country.”

On the option of funding renewal

“We are hopeful there will be a renewal but we don’t know for sure,” Setel said.

To date, Vital Strategies has been asked to provide reflections on what has been achieved, but they have not had visibility into considerations Bloomberg Philanthropies is making on renewals. Setel said he is not concerned.

“This is standard business practice,” Setel explained.

This does not stop Vital Strategies from thinking about next steps if further funding becomes available.

“If there is a renewal, we think it will be an opportunity to deepen and broaden the country-level work we are doing and take it to the next level,” Setel said. This means making CRVS collection and analysis a core part of government capability.

“We can help to solidify business process improvements that we have brought to the CRVS systems so they are more efficient, user-friendly, and proactive in identifying events. They are also more aligned with best practice. And that is important next steps. While we have been able to show ... that these sorts of solutions we have crafted with government are deliverable, we want to help institutionalize and scale them.”

Another area where Setel hopes to continue working is in the use of vital statistics data.

“I think that we have concentrated on the production side over the past four years more than the output,” he said. “That is understandable, as it has been important to get that data. But it’s time to pivot and support the production of vital statistic reports, especially those that provide a sophisticated way to look at births and death disaggregated by demographics and geographic area and put this data squarely in the hands of policymakers and decision-makers.”

Incorporating marriage and divorce data is unlikely to be a focus for a renewed Data for Health, but Setel said there is work for them to encourage and support organizations working in this space.

The final months

While there is hope of renewal, it is not guaranteed — and Vital Strategies is working toward an end date of March.

“We are really pushing the gas pedal to achieve our targets for the last months of the initiative,” Setel said.

Priorities are to complete the verbal autopsy work, support data quality checks, facilitate governments to get the skills, and document lessons learned.

For the countries the initiative is supporting, Setel believes they are “universally in a better place” than when they started, with some expected to graduate in certain functions and kick Vital Strategies and their partners out the door.

“There is still a lot of learning to be shared,” he said. “We have established good relationships with countries we are working [with] and I hope those can continue — they’re not as demanding in terms of the basics and capability [than] when they started, but there is still more to be learned on quality and analysis.”

“But we have done really well and I am pleased at the accomplishments we have been able to achieve in a short period of time.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.