The Visualize No Malaria initiative has been running since 2015 as a collaboration between non-profit health organisation, PATH, the Zambian Ministry of Health and four tech companies – including data analytics provider Exasol. PATH’s involvement with the Ministry of Health began in 2007.
Jeff Bernson, the chief data officer and VP for technology analytics and market innovations at PATH, said that initially, the partnership involved rolling out the interventions that could prevent the spread of malaria including the use of bed nets, then later on increasing access to diagnostics and drugs to treat malaria.
In addition, he said that PATH helped the Zambian Ministry of Health to adopt increasingly digitised processes. Bernson explained that before 2007, the Ministry of Health was capturing case data but it was being logged in a register and hand-written and it takes a lot to correlate that and report it up and nothing was harmonised.
At the same time, PATH was also going through a transition, moving from capturing hand-written data, which took a lot of time to collate and analyse through spreadsheets and Excel tools, to creating more stabilised repositories.
Then the Ministry of Health with the help of PATH introduced a tool called DHIS2, District Health Information System, which Bernson described as a great open source tool.
A new data store was needed as PATH was taking into account not just surveillance data – routine data captured from a health facility or at a community level – but also environmental data such as vegetation and rainfall which are good indicators of mosquito habitats.
“As we digitised it, the quality of that data was also improving and we started to think about which better tools we could be using,” said Bernson. With the digitised system, PATH and the Ministry of Health were able to begin to ask tougher questions of the data such as where does the disease emerge and what effect are the available resources having on it.
At this level, PATH and the Zambian Ministry of Health needed to use high-speed databases with in-memory computing like Exasol. “It allows us to not only store that data but also serve it up much faster in low resource settings,” said Bernson.
Exasol’s work with PATH was the first time the database platform had ever been involved with a not-for-profit organisation and it has led to partnerships with other health charities such as Operation Fistula.
Eva Murray, head of business intelligence at Exasol, said that as knowledge and awareness grows on the charity sector side and the technology vendor side of the availability of and need for data tools, there will be increasingly more opportunities for collaboration in the future.
She said: “The biggest challenge is just not even knowing all the stuff that is out there. Jeff and his colleagues have been a great support because they are already in the non-profit health sector so they know who we should be speaking to. But also we try and learn more about the sector so we can proactively engage with organisations that are out there.”
Bernson said: “At the end of the day, data isn’t going to save lives on its own. It has to be combined with lifesaving interventions like getting the right drugs and diagnostics out to the facilities and community health workers who then need to be deployed to the places where this disease is emerging and stamp it out.”
He went on: “If you can provide data more efficiently, if you can put it into a visual analysis that leaders and decision makers can take ownership owner, then you have a much better chance of tackling this disease and stamping it out.