Until recently, health data in Kenya was collected by the government and private enterprises. There was no central repository, making research and evidence-based decision making a complicated affair. That has all changed due to an unlikely partnership between Kenya’s health ministry, digital innovator Qhala and the University of Nairobi.

The night before Kenya’s health ministry announced the country’s first Covid-19 case in March 2020, behind the scenes, Qhala’s data scientists were working to answer one question: how could data contribute to the national response to Covid? Qhala collected, coded and visualised public health data, creating epidemiological models and scenarios. It was these scenarios that informed the Kenyan government’s decision to lock down the country, saving countless lives.

Qhala went on to partner with the University of Nairobi and the health ministry to form the Center for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (CEMA). The centre, a multi-disciplinary community of practice based at the university, develops tools and models that aid the collection, analysis and visualisation of disease trends and other health information gathered from national population data. Prof Thumbi Mwangi, an epidemiologist at CEMA, explains its reason for being:

“The idea of CEMA is to harness the existing health data and make better decisions… the critical thing we want to address here [at CEMA] is both the speed and the quality of decision-making in health using data.”

CEMA brings together epidemiology experts and researchers and other academics from the University of Nairobi, data science and computer science professionals from Qhala and data obtained from government and private sources. CEMA merges the powers of data science and medicine to make health data available to the public at large. CEMA also provides advisory services to the government as well as expertise and training on translating data into policies that will improve public health. CEMA also has a focus on research. Dr Loice Ombajo, a co-director at CEMA and the Chair of Infectious Diseases, University of Nairobi elaborates on this role:

“The other focus area [of CEMA] is around research on infectious disease. This would be clinical research, population research, how various infectious diseases affect populations and factors within populations that affect infectious disease… So, when we collect data from the patients we see, that then helps inform some of the models, some of the practices and data that ends up being analysed.”

In aggregating and centralising health data, CEMA is making it possible for the government and the public to deeply investigate disease outbreaks and access demographic data. The centre is influencing government decisions on treatment protocols aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19.

A symbiotic partnership

CEMA is effective because each of its partners rely on each other’s unique strengths, in a symbiotic way. Qhala brings its strengths as a private sector entity:

  • Agility: Qhala has the agility to experiment, test and learn with tools and approaches in order to create bespoke visualisation and other tech solutions that benefit the CEMA partnership. In contrast, the government and academia tend to be slowed down by internal processes and peer-review requirements.
  • Partnerships: Qhala is able to partner with other private bodies to benefit CEMA. An example of this is Qhala’s partnership with Amazon web services that brought free cloud hosting to CEMA.
  • Cutting-edge data analysis and visualisation tools: Using code, Qhala researchers and data scientists are able to translate population and other data into easy-to-understand dashboard maps, charts and tables for consumption by the public.

The University of Nairobi brings the power of science to the work of CEMA through epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, clinicians, mathematicians and statisticians. The university also brings credibility to CEMA, as the university vice chancellor, Prof Kiama Gitahi, points out:

“As a university, we have the appropriate convening power, we have the credibility… when we collect this data, using our well-trained scholars the professors here… it is going to be credible and therefore it is going to be very relevant to [making] decisions, including decisions on where we need to put our resources when we are taking care of the health of our people.”

The health ministry brings to the CEMA the expertise of collecting reliable national health data on a consistent and continuous basis. Without this data, no analysis or data visualisation would be possible.

A source of locally-generated data

CEMA is making it possible for the health ministry to base its decisions on reliable, locally-sourced data. Speaking during the launch of CEMA in June 2021, Dr Patrick Amoth, Acting Director-General for Health in the Ministry of Health said this access to local data was a key development:

“I think CEMA has done a great job in helping the ministry of health craft interventions, especially the advisories, based on locally-generated data… in the early phase of the [Covid-19] pandemic, we relied on data especially from China and the WHO… [we] could not directly infer that whatever was happening in China would happen in Kenya. That is when we thought outside the box to… bring our great academicians on board to… help us in terms of looking at the data, analysing the data so that we can craft interventions that will apply to our local populations.”

CEMA represents a different kind of public-private partnership, one that is driven by tech and data, rather than capital-intensive infrastructure. It will hopefully, inspire data and tech partnerships in other sectors and spark conversations on what the government can do to make the data it collects more readily usable by data scientists.

Injecting private sector agility

By training Masters and PhD students in data science and private sector agility, Qhala CEO Dr Shikoh Gitau hopes CEMA will influence the culture of decision-making in the health sector:

“For me the most… exciting part of this last year of CEMA has been in working with extremely young people on data… If we can do more of this, [provide] that private sector industrial perspective and experience while the students are still students, hopefully that [private sector] agility will be injected into how things are done [in the health sector].”

One positive outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the increased momentum towards digitisation in all sectors. CEMA is one result of this momentum. Its creation has led to the deepening of data democracy in Kenya in the key area of health. It has raised the profile of the country as an example in the area of accessible health data. CEMA stands as a robust example of what is possible when communities of practice and partnerships leverage the power of data science, digital innovation and, ultimately, the Fourth Industrial Revolution.