Building a Data Infrastructure for the Bioeconomy


Article by Gopal P. Sarma and Melissa Haendel: “While the development of vaccines for COVID-19 has been widely lauded, other successful components of the national response to the pandemic have not received as much attention. The National COVID Cohort Collaborative (N3C), for example, flew under the public’s radar, even though it aggregated crucial US public health data about the new disease through cross-institutional collaborations among government, private, and nonprofit health and research organizations. These data, which were made available to researchers via cutting-edge software tools, have helped in myriad ways: they led to identification of the clinical characteristics of acute COVID-19 for risk prediction, assisted in providing clinical care for immunocompromised adults, revealed how COVID infection affects children, and documented that vaccines appear to reduce the risk of developing long COVID.

N3C has created the largest national, publicly available patient-level dataset in US history. Through a unique public-private partnership, over 300 participating organizations quickly overcame privacy concerns and data silos to include 13 million patient records in the project. More than 3,000 participating scientists are now working to overcome the particular challenge faced in the United States—the lack of a national healthcare data infrastructure available in many other countries—to support public health and medical responses. N3C shows great promise for unraveling answers to questions related to COVID, but it could easily be expanded for many areas of public health, including pandemic preparedness and monitoring disease status across the population.

As public servants dedicated to improving public health and equity, we believe that to unite the nation’s fragmented public health system, the United States should establish a standing capacity to collect, harmonize, and sustain a wide range of data types and sources. The public health data collected by N3C would ultimately be but one component of a rich landscape of interoperable data systems that can guide public policy in an era of rapid environmental change, sophisticated biological threats, and an economy enabled by biotechnology. Such an effort will require new thinking about data collection, infrastructure, and regulation, but its benefits could be enormous—enabling policymakers to make decisions in an increasingly complex world. And as the interconnections between society, industry, and government continue to intensify, decisionmaking of all types and scales will be more efficient and responsive if it can rely on significantly expanded data collection and analysis capabilities…(More)”.

Using mobile money data and call detail records to explore the risks of urban migration in Tanzania


Paper by Rosa Lavelle-Hill: “Understanding what factors predict whether an urban migrant will end up in a deprived neighbourhood or not could help prevent the exploitation of vulnerable individuals. This study leveraged pseudonymized mobile money interactions combined with cell phone data to shed light on urban migration patterns and deprivation in Tanzania. Call detail records were used to identify individuals who migrated to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city. A street survey of the city’s subwards was used to determine which individuals moved to more deprived areas. t-tests showed that people who settled in poorer neighbourhoods had less money coming into their mobile money account after they moved, but not before. A machine learning approach was then utilized to predict which migrants will move to poorer areas of the city, making them arguably more vulnerable to poverty, unemployment and exploitation. Features indicating the strength and location of people’s social connections in Dar es Salaam before they moved (‘pull factors’) were found to be most predictive, more so than traditional ‘push factors’ such as proxies for poverty in the migrant’s source region…(More)”.

Lexota


Press Release: “Today, Global Partners Digital (GPD), the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria (CHR), Article 19 West Africa, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and PROTEGE QV jointly launch LEXOTA—Laws on Expression Online: Tracker and Analysis, a new interactive tool to help human rights defenders track and analyse government responses to online disinformation across Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Expanding on work started in 2020, LEXOTA offers a comprehensive overview of laws, policies and other government actions on disinformation in every country in Sub-Saharan Africa. The tool is powered by multilingual data and context-sensitive insight from civil society organisations and uses a detailed framework to assess whether government responses to disinformation are human rights-respecting. A dynamic comparison feature empowers users to examine the regulatory approaches of different countries and to compare how different policy responses measure up against human rights standards, providing them with insights into trends across the region as well as the option to examine country-specific analyses. 

In recent years, governments in Sub-Saharan Africa have increasingly responded to disinformation through content-based restrictions and regulations, which often pose significant risks to individuals’ right to freedom of expression. LEXOTA was developed to support those working to defend internet freedom and freedom of expression across the region, by making data on these government actions accessible and comparable…(More)”.

Building Data Infrastructure in Development Contexts: Lessons from the Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge


Report by Stefaan Verhulst, Andrew Young, Andrew J. Zahuranec, Peter Martey Addo: “COVID-19 and other societal threats hamper the ability of development practitioners and stakeholders to address The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a number of unprecedented societal threats. While the effects of the crisis know no borders, the pandemic’s consequences have been felt in a particularly acute way in developing economies across the Global South. Indeed, while estimates of excess mortality show that many developing economies compare favorably to other parts of the world, the pandemic has still overburdened health systems and disrupted food supplies, increasing the risk of malnutrition. Economic estimates suggest that COVID-19 will reduce the GDP of African economies by 1.4 percent, with smaller economies facing contractions of up to 7.8 percent (Gondwe 2020).

Given that development agencies have limited resources to fight the effects of the pandemic, data can play an important role in bolstering decision-making processes. When data is available and used responsibly, it can generate important insights about what is happening, help organizations understand cause and effect, improve forecasting, and assess the impact of efforts (Verhulst et al. 2021). However, the major limiting factors are the amount of data and the expertise available in the ecosystem. These limitations are especially severe in least-developed countries, such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, datadriven challenges—short-term exercises where data and expertise is brought to bear on some pressing social challenge—can be useful tools for overcoming these limiting factors by, attracting data holders and practitioners to engage in rapid action to advance development goals…(More)”

Machine learning and phone data can improve targeting of humanitarian aid


Paper by Emily Aiken, Suzanne Bellue, Dean Karlan, Chris Udry & Joshua E. Blumenstock: “The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated many low- and middle-income countries, causing widespread food insecurity and a sharp decline in living standards. In response to this crisis, governments and humanitarian organizations worldwide have distributed social assistance to more than 1.5 billion people. Targeting is a central challenge in administering these programmes: it remains a difficult task to rapidly identify those with the greatest need given available data. Here we show that data from mobile phone networks can improve the targeting of humanitarian assistance. Our approach uses traditional survey data to train machine-learning algorithms to recognize patterns of poverty in mobile phone data; the trained algorithms can then prioritize aid to the poorest mobile subscribers. We evaluate this approach by studying a flagship emergency cash transfer program in Togo, which used these algorithms to disburse millions of US dollars worth of COVID-19 relief aid. Our analysis compares outcomes—including exclusion errors, total social welfare and measures of fairness—under different targeting regimes. Relative to the geographic targeting options considered by the Government of Togo, the machine-learning approach reduces errors of exclusion by 4–21%. Relative to methods requiring a comprehensive social registry (a hypothetical exercise; no such registry exists in Togo), the machine-learning approach increases exclusion errors by 9–35%. These results highlight the potential for new data sources to complement traditional methods for targeting humanitarian assistance, particularly in crisis settings in which traditional data are missing or out of date…(More)”.

Repeat photos show change in southern African landscapes: a citizen science project


Paper by Timm Hoffman and Hana Petersen: “Every place in the world has a history. To understand it in the present you need some knowledge of its past. The history of the earth can be read from its rocks; the history of life, from the evolutionary histories and relationships of its species. But what of the history of modern landscapes and the many benefits we derive from them, such as water and food? What are their histories – and how are they shifting in response to the intense pressures they face from climate change and from people?

Historical landscape photographs provide one way of measuring this. They capture the way things were at a moment in time. By standing at the same place and re-photographing the same scene, it is possible to document the nature of change. Sometimes researchers can even measure the extent and rate of change for different elements in the landscape.

Reasons for the change can also sometimes be observed from this and other historical information, such as the climate or fire record. All of these data can then be related to what has been written about environmental change using other approaches and models. Researchers can ascertain whether the environment has reached a critical threshold and consider how to respond to the changes.

This is what repeat photography is all about…

The rePhotoSA project was launched in August 2015. The idea is to involve interested members of the public in re-photographing historical locations. This has two benefits. First, participants add to the number of repeated images. Second, public awareness of landscape change is raised.

The project website has over 6,000 historical images from ten primary photographic collections of southern African landscapes, dating from the late 1800s to the early 2000s. The geographic spread of the photographs is influenced largely by the interests of the original photographers. Often these photographs are donated to the project by family members, or institutions to which the original photographers belonged – and sometimes by the photographers themselves….(More)

How data can help migrants


Blog by Andrew Young: “…Actors across sectors are experimenting with new data innovations to improve decision-making on migration and fill gaps in official statistics and traditional data sources. Non-traditional data, including privately held information, can complement traditional data sources that are not always timely or sufficient. Innovative uses of data can help us forecast and understand macro-level trends and developments in migration flows and the drivers of these phenomena, such as labour market disruptions. They can also support a better understanding of migrants’ experience, through more demographically-disaggregated information and more insight into “data invisibles” who are not represented in official statistics.

Specifically, new forms of data collaboration are enabling the use of data from telecoms, social media companies and satellite imagery to enhance civil registration procedures for migrantsforecast the effects of sea level rises on migration and nowcast international migration flows, for example. The Big Data for Migration Alliance (BD4M) was established to accelerate the responsible and ethical use of non-traditional data sources and methods. The BD4M is experimenting with new co-design and prototyping methods to tap into global expertise and advance more responsible and effective data collaboration to support data innovations for migration. The first of these “studios” investigated how to design data collaboration to better understand human mobility and migration in West Africa, including by leveraging non-traditional data.

Actors face persistent challenges in advancing innovative uses of non-traditional data to improve migration policymaking while also providing greater autonomy and agency to migrants at key moments of the data life cycle. It is a task that spans initial data collection, data processing, sharing, analysis and (re)use of data. However, more research and evidence is needed to advance digital self-determination in a way that respectfully empowers data subjects, including migrants.

The recently established International Network on Digital Self Determination (IDSD), an interdisciplinary consortium studying and designing ways to engage in trustworthy data spaces and ensure human centric approaches, is spearheading this work. The IDSD is also promoting and facilitating the use of collaborative studios to convene domain experts and migrants to define strategies that make sure that the data subjects themselves are aware of emerging uses of data that concerns them and are positioned to influence the design and objectives of new data innovations. By tapping into migrants’ perspectives, actors can ensure their data collaboration efforts are aligned with the priorities of their intended beneficiaries and conduct their work with the type of clear social license that is often lacking in the space….(More)”.

Tracking symptoms of respiratory diseases online can give a picture of community health


Article by Mvuyo Makhasi, Cheryl Cohen and Sibongile Walaza: “Participatory surveillance has not yet been implemented in African countries. There has only ever been one pilot study, in Tanzania. In 2016, a pilot study of a mobile app called AfyaData was implemented for participatory surveillance in Tanzania. The aim was to establish a platform where members of the community could report any symptoms they encountered. Based on the clinical data provided these would be grouped into categories of diseases. In the pilot study most of the reported cases were related to the digestive system. The second most frequently reported cases were related to the respiratory system. This demonstrated the potential of obtaining close to real-time data on diseases directly from the community….

Participatory surveillance is in place in 11 European countries that form part of the InfluenzaNet network. Here it’s been shown to address some of the limitations of traditional facility-based systems. For example, it can detect the start of the flu season up to two weeks earlier than traditional facility-based surveillance. This allows public health officials to plan and respond earlier to seasonal outbreaks.

Self-reporting systems provide similar and complementary data to facility-based surveillance. They show:

  • variations over time in cases of acute respiratory tract infection
  • time to peak of incidence of acute cases
  • the peak intensity of acute cases
  • a comparison between participatory and facility-based surveillance trends.

The same analysis can now be done for COVID-19 cases, which were previously not included in participatory surveillance platforms.

The systems enable analysis of health-seeking behaviour in people who don’t see a doctor or nurse. For example, people may use home-based remedies, search for guidelines on the internet or consult traditional healers. Health-seeking surveys are often conducted in research studies for a defined period of time, but data is not routinely collected. Participatory surveillance is a longitudinal and systematic way of collecting information about health-seeking behaviour related to respiratory diseases.

Vaccine effectiveness estimates can also be determined through participatory surveillance data. This includes vaccine coverage for seasonal influenza and COVID-19 and information on how these vaccines perform in preventing illness. These data can be compared with vaccine effectiveness estimates from facility-based surveillance…(More)”.

The committeefication of collective action in Africa


Paper by Caroline Archambault and David Ehrhardt: “Over the last century, Africa has witnessed considerable committeefication, a process by which committees have become increasingly important to organise collective action. Throughout the continent, committees have come to preside over everything from natural resource management to cultural life, and from peacebuilding to community consultation. What has been the impact of this dramatic institutional change on the nature and quality of collective action? Drawing on decades of anthropological research and development work in East Africa – studying, working with and working in committees of various kinds – this article presents an approach to addressing this question.

We show how committees have surface features as well as deep functions, and that the impact of committeefication depends not only on their features and functions but also on the pathways through which they proliferate. On the surface, committees aim for inclusive and deliberative decision making, even if they vary in the specifics of their missions, membership, decision-making rules, and level of autonomy. But their deep functions can be quite different: a façade for accessing recognition or resources; a classroom for learning leadership skills; or a club for elites to pursue their shared interests. The impact of these features and functions depends on the pathways through which they grow: autonomous from existing forms of collective action; in synergistic cooperation; or in competition, possibly weakening or even destroying existing local institutions.

Community-based development interventions often rely heavily on committeefied collective action. This paper identifies the benefits that this strategy can have, but also shows its potential to weaken or even destroy existing forms of collective action. On that basis, we suggest that it is imperative to turn more systematic analytical attention to committees, and assess the extent to which they are delivering development or crippling collective action in the guise of democracy and deliberation…(More)”.

The Digital Continent: Placing Africa in Planetary Networks of Work


Open Access Book by Mohammad Amir Anwar and Mark Graham: “As recently as the early 2010s, there were more internet users in countries like France or Germany than in all of Africa put together. But much changed in that decade, and 2018 marked the first year in human history in which a majority of the world’s population is now connected to the internet. This mass connectivity means that we have an internet that no longer connects only the world’s wealthy. Workers from Lagos to Johannesburg to Nairobi, and everywhere in between, can now apply for and carry out jobs coming from clients who themselves can be located anywhere in the world. Digital outsourcing firms can now also set up operations in the most unlikely of places in order to tap into hitherto disconnected labour forces. With CEOs in the Global North proclaiming that location is a concern of the past, and governments and civil society in Africa promising to create millions of jobs on the continent, The Digital Continent investigates what this new world of digital work means to the lives of African workers. Anwar and Graham draw on a five-year-long field study in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda, and over 200 interviews conducted with participants including gig workers, call and contact centre workers, small self-employed freelancers, business owners, government officials, labour union officials, and industry experts. Focusing on both platform-based remote work and call and contact centre work, the book examines the job quality implications of digital work for the lives and livelihoods of African workers…(More)”.