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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

How PATH’s data journey led to a mission to eliminate malaria

In 2017, an estimated 219 million cases of malaria occurred globally, which resulted in approximately 435,000 deaths. PATH, a global not-for-profit that works to accelerate health equity by working with others to solve the world’s most pressing health challenges, has played a big part in trying to reduce the number of cases of malaria around the world.

When Jeff Bernson joined PATH over 10 years ago, his main mandate was to formalise the organisation’s approach towards measurements and metrics. It meant that a lot of his focus was on data. Little did he know how the data space would evolve in the decade that followed, and that he would take on the job of chief data officer (CDO) – a C-level position that didn’t exist anywhere ten years ago.

“My job has really been to work across the organisation. At any given time we have between 200-300 grants, contracts or awards, which are focused on acceleration innovation to achieve health equity in some of the lowest resource settings around the world,” he explains.

“My job has really been to help our portfolio and project teams to curate data as a true asset, not only for us but with all of our partners such as ministries of health and their measurement and data teams, and our job is often to help them make more of that data asset, provide more insights, build capacity to use data, build better systems and better architecture,” he says.

Bernson also has a role as vice president for technology, analytics and market innovation at PATH. He says this role is about taking a lot of his experience in the data field and applying it to some of the frugal innovations and products that PATH works on, such as medical devices, health technologies and diagnostics.

“As you can imagine, as digital becomes a much more powerful force, we start to look at all kinds of opportunities in terms of connected devices and diagnostics using different modalities of IoT and 3D printing. These aspects are game changers and helping us to realise aspects of our mission, which is to achieve health equity,” he says.

Fighting malaria

PATH had been working on an initiative back in 2007 when it was collaborating with Zambia, the Ministry of Health and the National Malaria Elimination Centre to fight malaria. It was working on optimising proven interventions – distributing bed nets and getting better coverage for indoor residual spraying to thwart mosquitoes. It also helped to roll out better diagnostics to test for malaria and better drugs to actually treat the disease.

As it started to roll this out it was also helping the country to improve its data collection. Over time, PATH increased the frequency at which it collected data, and also digitised that data with the Ministry of Health, created a repository for it and then collected that data through mobile phones, streamlining critical components of data collection.

“We realised there’s a real opportunity to work with this data and really find better insights and have a guide of the programme closer to real-time than before. So we asked how we could democratise this data and how could make it more available – like many other organisation we were doing a good job of getting the data into the help management information system available nationally but we were not doing a great job of getting that data out and putting it to work,” he says

PATH was already using Tableau as a tool internally but it realised it could use the product for some of this data. It was good first step of making the data more accessible, both nationally and all the way down to the district level.

“That’s when we started to realise that it’s not just Tableau – there are a lot of other powerful tools that are easy to use and game changers in getting people to look at their data, where otherwise the data would just be used for reporting purposes – we wanted to transform this reporting system to a health intelligence system,” he says.

This led to a series of conversations with the Tableau Foundation, which led to inviting other partners that had complementary tools.

PATH selected Alteryx for its data management and data blending capabilities and Exasol for its memory database.

“We were able to experiment with not just serving up the surveillance data but linking it to larger big data sets around climate, rainfall and vegetation and being able to serve that up even though we were in a low bandwidth setting,” he says.

As Google Maps and other internal maps weren’t as robust as what PATH needed, the company started working with Mapbox and Digital Globe to get access to better quality maps and different layers to help decision makers potentially tell their stories in a stronger way.

The project, which originally launched in 2015, is dubbed Visualize No Malaria, and has had success in both Zambia and Senegal.

This week, Tableau, Mapbox, Exasol and Alteryx announced a collective $4.3m technology contribution over the next three years, which they say will help governments to eliminate malaria for as many people as possible. With the grant, PATH will support national governments and regional organisations in up to six sub-Saharan countries by using many of these technologies to improve decision-making around eliminating the deadly disease. The investment will also provide training to hundreds of frontline health workers and officials on how to use the power of this real-time data to tackle malaria as well as other diseases.

PATH will work to mobilise an additional $2.5m in funding through its country and agency partners for the initiative, with the aim of expanding to three further countries in southern Africa.