Strengthening Africa’s COVID-19 Data Ecosystem using Artificial Intelligence

October 1, 2021
A mural highlighting COVID-19 measures in Nairobi, Kenya.

An unexpected bout of fever early this year heralded what would be my worst encounter with COVID-19 yet. I had recently seen off a few guests in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, and was packing for a trip to Turkana in northern Kenya. Within hours, a headache and a mild cough followed. It would take two days and several tests to finally diagnose what I had been dreading all along — I had contracted the COVID-19 virus. Needless to say, that unforgettable 10 pm e-mail with the test result put a pause on all my plans for the next two weeks as I sought to recover. While I was fortunate to have access to testing and reliable information about COVID-19, this was not the case for many people across the African continent. 

At the time of my diagnosis in February 2021, there had been 101,828 confirmed cases in Kenya, out of which 2,085 persons had succumbed to the disease. The virus has since evolved, resulting in more variants, more cases, and more deaths, both in Kenya and abroad. While the availability of a vaccine has brought a sigh of relief, governments are still facing the challenge of reducing the spread of the virus and the case fatality rate. However, this has proved to be a mammoth task, particularly in developing countries where funding, human resources and health facilities are limited. 

With large-scale testing touted as one of the best means of pandemic surveillance and control, it has been a massive undertaking for many countries.  As the COVID-19 virus spread across the African continent, many countries were hard-pressed to source testing kits, laboratories, trained personnel, personal protective equipment, and other necessities required to manage the disease. In addition, the plethora of data sources without integration and interoperability posed a challenge, let alone the limited experts with the required data analytics skills. The lack of reliable metadata to inform efficient integration and provide real-time insights, compounded by the absence of a data governance framework also hindered governments’ ability to create responsive programming and policies.

Altogether, this has necessitated a shift from the traditional data collection and analysis approach — countries in the Global South need to adopt a more timely, sustainable and cost-effective way of tracking the disease and forecasting its evolution. It is with this motivation in mind that the INSPIRE Platform for Evaluation and Analysis of COVID-19 Harmonized data (INSPIRE-PEACH) was conceptualized, with the aim of establishing a data hub in Kenya and Malawi. The data hub is the brainchild of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), Malawi Polytechnic, the ALPHA network of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, South African Population Research Infrastructure Network and the Committee on Data of the International Science Council.

Through a robust suite of data standards, technologies and diverse data integration methodologies, the research team proposes to develop the key elements of a coordinated pan-African COVID-19 data ecosystem. In particular, this data ecosystem will leverage the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Data Science to carry out analysis and oversight. With its ability to mimic human cognitive functions, AI has brought about a paradigm shift to healthcare, marked by increasing availability of healthcare data and rapid progress of health-related analytics techniques. The system uses algorithms that are trained to ‘learn’ features from a large volume of healthcare data, which are then used to assist in a variety of clinical and health management applications.

With the support of the Global South AI4COVID Program which is funded by Canada’s IDRC and the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), the Consortium seeks to deepen continental understanding of responsible and evidence-based AI and data science approaches that support COVID-19 response and recovery, while ensuring inclusiveness and gender responsiveness. INSPIRE-PEACH seeks to contribute to the growing body of knowledge on COVID-19 by building capacity in government, academia and the private sector (including civil society and advocacy groups) to strengthen data systems and information-sharing about the COVID-19 virus. We also aspire to institute oversight through a trusted governance and policy environment for improved decision-making and optimization of public health interventions. Taking into consideration the infodemic that the pandemic has also brought along, the project seeks to address some of the stigmas associated with the virus, and the importance of government accountability and reporting, especially in rural areas where cases and deaths often go unreported.

This article was republished from the Global South AI4COVID Program website.