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Digital Health and the Development of Data Science in Uganda


By Prisca Adaeze Nenger

On Wednesday, 27th February 2019, Kampala International University (KIU) through the office of the Vice-Chancellor and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Affairs organized a seminar tagged “DIGITAL HEALTH AND DEVELOPMENT IN DATA SCIENCE IN UGANDA”. The key discussants in the seminar were Ms. Mariam Basajja, a Ph.D. student at Leiden University, Netherlands, whose research is in the area of Advanced Computing, and Prof. Dr. Mirjam Van Reisen,  a Senior Lecturer also from Leiden University.

The Vice-Chancellor, KIU; Dr. Mpezamihigo Mouhamad welcomed the guest speakers and all the participants to the programme, as he encouraged all to pay attention to the presentations that will be made during the seminar.

All the speakers, including the guest speakers like Dr. Mike Barongo, who ably represented Prof. Baryamureeba Venansius, from Makerere University, and Dr. Primrose Nakazibwe, from Mbarara University of Science and Technology, gave illuminating and thought-provoking lectures on Data and Health, with focus on Data Science, which an emerging field in Uganda and in the African continent at large.

Data and Health

In his presentation, Dr. Mike Barongo, did an expository seminar on ‘DATA AND HEALTH’, looking at the importance of data science in health, where he defined Digital Health as the convergence of digital technologies with health, healthcare, living, and society to enhance the efficiency of healthcare delivery. He, therefore, states that data science is an emerging field in Uganda and Africa as a whole “it is not yet cast in the stone” Dr. Barongo emphasized. Being that data science is one approach towards data-driven decision making that will go a long way in enhancing effective service in various sectors in the African society, Dr. Barongo went further to point out the challenges facing the Uganda Health sector as lack of an integral health management system, lack of a comprehensive health history of Ugandans, which makes it hard to engage primitive measures for healthcare service delivery, to mention but a few.

Designing a FAIR Data Point for Digital Health in Uganda

As a means to proffer solution to the existing health management problem in Uganda and Africa, as identified by Dr. Barongo, Ms. Mariam Basajja, a key discussant in the seminar, took on the obvious challenge to carry out a research by ‘DESIGNING A FAIR DATA POINT FOR DIGITAL HEALTH IN UGANDA’. During her presentation, Ms. Basajja defined Digital Health as the delivery of healthcare services through the use of ICT, which includes mobile health (mHealth), health Information technology, electronic health records (EHRs) and telemedicine. The decreasing cost of technology and telecommunication along with expanding network coverage in Africa has labeled the African continent as the world’s fastest-growing ‘mobile region’. Due to such growth and the fragility of the continent’s healthcare, mhealth has flourished. Nevertheless, the implementation of the FAIR principle in Digital Health is still relatively new and is lacking implementation in Africa, as there has been no single citation on the FAIR principles made in Uganda as a location, and hardly any from Africa at large. Thus, it makes it a unique and ideal solution to the Digital Health solutions issues in Africa, especially in Uganda, being the focus area of the research.

Ms. Basajja in her presentation goes further to explain why Digital Health is important and how it can be sustained, using the FAIR principle.

Health care in Africa is a crucial area under the Sustainable Development Goals; Goal Three identifies “Ensuring healthy lives and promoting the well-being of all ages is essential to sustainable development.” And within this overall goal, promoting Digital Health in Africa is an important objective, being that it raises the quality of providing health care at the frontline, and it also alleviates the workload at often overburdened secondary and tertiary facilities.

Again, Digital Health is seen as necessary in order to overcome structural gaps in primary healthcare such as; the shortage of doctors and trained health workers, the shortage of specialized health expertise, the scant coverage of primary health services in most rural and remote areas, among others.

What is Fairness?

Fairness reflects the extent to which a digital resource addresses the FAIR(Findable Accessible Interoperable Reusable) principles as per the expectation defined by a community of stakeholders.

A Fair Data Point is software that, from one side, allows data owners to expose datasets in a FAIR manner and, for another side, allows data users to discover properties about offered datasets (metadata) and, if license conditions allow, the actual data can be accessed.

This is a set of criteria and applications that will help to achieve better data management and integration, with a particularly good record in health applications.

Proffered Solution

FAIR will increase sustainability through coordination with increased data interoperability and use the data science criteria of data as Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable.

FAIR will also increase data security and protection of the hub through governance with active government support for ICT-led development.

Who benefits from the data generated in Africa?

On her part, Dr. Primrose Nakazibwe using the commodity chain approach, posed a challenging question on data ownership in Africa, as she exposed the under-valued nature of data in Africa, which is relatively given freely, yet the users of these data benefit from the data generated, at the expense of the data owner. Thus, describing data as a new oil, and/or a new gold for Africa, which is being undermined, compared to the rich economic value it generates from Africa; data in Africa is being related to gold and oil because of the potential of those data generated to transform the community and the African society as a whole if maximized correctly by Africans and not only people from the West and other developed countries of the world.

African Implementation Network for FAIR, a Feasibility

Prof. Dr. Mirjam Van Reisen left no stone unturned. She also lent her voice to the voices of all the speakers, challenging participants on the Internet of Data and Service, with a view to data ownership and stewardship in Africa. As such, Prof. Dr. Van Reisen described data stewardship as the purposeful management of data, to make it machine-readable so that large data can be processed for Artificial Intelligence – AI. However, the accessibility of the data should be determined by the data subject (the source), while the Government or the public sector should manage the data generated by the data subjects by determining how health data generated should be accessible by the public, or how it should be used for data analytics, all in a bid to protect the patient and the public where necessary. She, therefore, threw more light on the importance of the African implementation network of the FAIR principle, as this will help to solve the prevalent healthcare and other related challenges in Uganda, and Africa at large, since data science helps to reflect the contextuality of events. Prof. Dr. Van Reisen ended her presentation with a thought-provoking question by asking “Is the internet of data and services going to offer us a fair opportunity to share and compare data?” She thus emphasized that unless we contextualize our data, then we are creating our internet of data and services that will make no sense, and if it is so, then, there is a big problem!

The seminar indeed was a blast, with so much to learn from! Other highlights from the seminar, include, but not limited to:

Do you know that?

Africa is the world’s fastest-growing mobile region? - Ms. Mariam Basajja.

Data or Computer Science helps to reflect the contextuality of events? - Prof. Dr. Mirjam Van Reisen.

Data Science is one approach toward data-driven decision-making? - Dr Mike Barongo.

You can turn data into insights? - Dr. Mike Barongo.

Data is a commodity? - Dr. Primrose Nakazibwe.

Data is something of economic sense if we attach value to it? - Dr. Primrose Nakazibwe.

Digital Architecture is also social, political and economic architecture? - Prof. Dr. Mirjam Van Reisen.

In a closing remark, the Vice-Chancellor, KIU; Dr. Mpezamihigo Mouhamad immensely thanked the guest speakers for such wonderful and thought-provoking presentations that challenge all the participants positively. The Vice-Chancellor also appreciated all the participants for creating time from their busy schedules to attend the seminar. He therefore categorically stated that KIU will ensure they put to practice what has been learned from the seminar, by thinking about the African solution to solve the problem of Data Science in Africa.