Striking New Ground in Colombia

Pontificia Universidad Javeriana en Bogotá, Colombia
Students outside Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Perry Hewitt, data.org

On this World Health Day, I am taking stock of the past couple of years and what is needed to enable greater progress across the social impact sector. At data.org, we believe that technology and, more specifically, data is a key component – but it is only one piece of a complex puzzle that ultimately centers around people, their experiences, and their opportunity to be heard.

Recently, we’ve had the good fortune to welcome two key partners to Epiverse’s global collaborative for epidemic prevention and response: Universidad de los Andes and Pontificia Universidad Javeriana – two top research universities in Colombia with an impressive track record in epidemiology, public health, and data science. Together with our existing teams at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the MRC Unit The Gambia, these distinguished researchers will help grow our community of developers, data scientists, modellers, and public health experts working to develop the epidemiological software tools of the future.

This new partnership underscores data.org’s belief that limiting the design and development of tools or platforms to innovation hubs in the Global North—whether San Francisco, Boston, London, or Berlin—perpetuates global health inequities and should be put well and truly behind us.

For decades, this antiquated approach has inhibited coordinated global responses to health crises and continues to deprive potential innovation hubs from developing in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). In effect, it facilitates a dependency on external tools and platforms while denying opportunities to local software developers, data scientists, and designers.

But it’s not just about equity, it is also about effectiveness. Simply put, technology designed 10,000 miles away from where it will be used by people who are far removed from its end users will never be as effective as technology that is informed by local context and first-hand experience.

It’s also about inclusion. Along with developing capacity in the LMICs, the technologists we employ in local hubs, like Colombia, must be representative of their communities. This means gender, race, and other types of intersectional diversity are essential, as a homogenous team may have major blind spots that translate into ineffective or incomplete data analyses. The investment into building a diverse and interdisciplinary community of toolmakers should be just as significant as building the tools themselves.

Epiverse is trying to do just that. From the beginning, we committed to having a significant portion of our tools developed in LMICs, and launched the program in Western Africa without delay alongside our initial partner, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the MRC Unit The Gambia. Now it welcomes this new partnership within Latin America and we are confident that more partners in the LMICs will follow.

Epiverse is already led by an amazingly diverse team, including Ibrahim Mahgoub, Rosalind Eggo, Bubacarr Bah, Zulma Cucunuba, Catalina Gonzalez Uribe, Adam Kucharski, and Perry Hewitt to mention just a few. It is comprised of technologists, data scientists, epidemiologists, communicators, program managers—a full range of interdisciplinary experts—collaborating and co-creating from The Gambia, the U.S., Turkey, England and Colombia. We are focused on building more than just the tools – we are cultivating a community and dedicated to working within a larger network of academic institutions, funders, tech companies, NGOs, governments, and intergovernmental organizations.

No doubt Epiverse will get things wrong in its pursuit of world health. No doubt it will learn from any missteps and improve. But one thing is certain: this is what the future of tech and data for social impact looks like—diverse in the where, the who, and the how.

About the Author

Danil Mikhailov, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of data.org. He has over 20 years of experience setting up multiple start-ups and leading work across a range of diverse sectors, always investigating and innovating in the space where technology, culture, and society converge.

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