Power to the people: how open data is improving health service delivery

The Guardian: “…What’s really interesting is how this data can be utilised by citizens to enable them to make more informed choices and demand improved services in sectors such as health. A growing community of technologists and social activists is emerging across Africa, supported by a burgeoning network of technology innovation hubs. They’re beginning to explore the ways in which data can be utilised to improve health outcomes.
In Northern Uganda, the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army conflict displaced two million people, leaving the social infrastructure in tatters. In 2008, the government launched a Peace, Recovery and Development Plan, but progress has been limited. There are insufficient health centres to serve the population, a severe shortage of staff, drugs and equipment, and corruption is widespread.
Cipesa – an organisation that uses communication technologies to support poverty reduction and development – and Numec, a local media organisation, have launched the iParticipate project. A multimedia platform is being populated with baseline data outlining the current status of the health service across three districts….
In the same region, Wougnet is training women to use information technologies to tackle social challenges. Local officials and community members have formed voluntary social accountability committees and been trained in the use of an online platform to capture and store information relating to poor governance and corruption in the health sector, often via mobile phones.
The platform strengthened campaign efforts which resulted in the construction of a health centre in Aloni Parish. In Amuru district, five health workers were arrested following reports highlighting negligence.
In the village of Bagega in Nigeria, 400 children died and thousands suffered significant health problems as the result of lead poisoning caused by poor mining practices. The government pledged $5.3m (£3.23m) for remediation, but the funds never reached the affected region.
A local organisation, Follow the Money, created an infographic highlighting the government’s commitments and combined this with real life testimonies and photographs showing the actual situation on the ground. Within 48 hours of a targeted Twitter campaign, the president committed to releasing funds to the village and, in February this year, children started receiving long overdue medical attention.
All these initiatives depend on access to critical government data and an active citizens who feel empowered to effect change in their own lives and communities. At present, it’s often hard to access data which is sufficiently granular, particularly at district or local level. For citizens to be engaged with information from government, it also needs to be accessible in ways that are simple to understand and linked to campaigns that impact their daily lives.
Tracking expenditure can also operate across borders. Donors are beginning to open up aid data by publishing to the IATI registry. This transparency by donor governments should improve the effectiveness of aid spending and contribute towards improved health outcomes.
It’s hard to draw general conclusions about how technology can contribute towards improving health outcomes, particularly when context is so critical and the field is so new. Nonetheless, some themes are emerging which can maximise the chances of an intervention’s success.
It can at times be challenging to encourage citizens to report for an array of reasons, including a lack of belief in their ability to effect change, cultural norms, a lack of time and both perceived and real risks. Still, participation seems to increase when citizens receive feedback from reports submitted and when mechanisms are in place that enable citizens to take collective action. On-the-ground testimonies and evidence can also help shift public opinion and amplify critical messages.
Interventions are dramatically strengthened when integrated into wider programmes, implemented by organisations that have established a strong relationship with the communities in which they work. They need to be backed by at least one strong civil society organisation that can follow up on any reports, queries or challenges which may arise. Where possible, engagement from government and local leaders can make a real difference. Identifying champions within government can also significantly improve responsiveness.”