Out of the Syrian crisis, a data revolution takes shape

Amy Maxmen in Nature: “…Whenever war, hurricanes or other disasters ravage part of the globe, one of the biggest problems for aid organizations is a lack of reliable data. People die because front-line responders don’t have the information they need to act efficiently. Doctors and epidemiologists plod along with paper surveys and rigid databases in crisis situations, watching with envy as tech companies expertly mine big data for comparatively mundane purposes.

Three years ago, one frustrated first-responder decided to do something about it. The result is an innovative piece of software called the Dharma Platform, which almost anyone can use to rapidly collect information and share, analyse and visualize it so that they can act quickly. And although public-health veterans tend to be sceptical of technological fixes, Dharma is winning fans. MSF and other organizations now use it in 22 countries. And so far, the Rise Fund, a ‘global impact fund’ whose board boasts U2 lead singer Bono, has invested US$14.3 million in the company behind it.

“I think Dharma is special because it has been developed by people who have worked in these chaotic situations,” says Jeremy Farrar, director of biomedical-funding charity the Wellcome Trust in London, “and it’s been road-tested and improved in the midst of reality.”

Now, the ultimate trial is in Syria: Salim, whose name has been changed in this story to protect him, started entering patient records into the Dharma Platform in March, and he is looking at health trends even as he shares his data securely with MSF staff in Amman.

It’s too soon to say that Dharma has transformed his hospital. And some aid organizations and governments may be reluctant to adopt it. But Aziz, who has deployed Dharma in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey, is confident that it will usher in a wave of platforms that accelerate evidence-based responses in emergencies, or even in health care generally. “This is like the first version of the iPhone or Yahoo! Messenger,” he says. “Maybe something better will come along, but this is the direction we’re going in.”…(More)”