SXSW Panel Shows How “Data is Power” in Ending a Plague

“Data is power.” That was the message that The Task Force and its trachoma elimination partners brought to technology leaders during a March 11 panel discussion at SXSW 2017 about why smartphones have been so instrumental to the elimination of this neglected tropical disease (NTD).

In 2012, a smartphone-based technology was introduced that transformed the global program to eliminate trachoma, an NTD that can cause blindness in later stages. This technology allowed countries to track the prevalence of the disease in virtually real time, which was not possible under the previous paper-based system that was used for surveying communities burdened by the disease.

During the discussion, panelists discussed how access to timely data from the smartphone system has helped mobilize partners and shaped country-level heath policies that have been vital to the success of the global elimination program.

“There’s been such a mobilization of partner support ever since we introduced the mobile technology,” said Beck Willis, data and analytics team manager for The Task Force’s International Trachoma Initiative (ITI). “Everyone really trusts the system and really trusts the data coming out of it and everyone’s collaborating more because we have really good information.”

Accurate prevalence data has been critical to Pfizer’s decision to increase its commitment of donated antibiotic used in trachoma elimination programs. “We scaled up from 50 million people to 60 million the next year to 120 million last year and it was completely because we were getting good data,” said Julie Jenson, director of supply chain, corporate responsibility at Pfizer.

Oumer Abdurahman, who previously served as NTD program manager for Ethiopia’s Federal Ministry of Health, said the prevalence data that has been generated in recent years helped spur his country’s leadership to prioritize trachoma elimination. “When the data came in, they came to the understanding that trachoma is a big problem in Ethiopia,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Ok, let’s take it to the national level and treat this disease as one of the biggest problems in Ethiopia.’ This data kind of drove the policy change in Ethiopia.”

He added, “Data is power because it made the decision-makers uncomfortable in a positive way. From that discomfort they took action.”

To watch a complete recording of the panel discussion, visit here.

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