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Harvard Scientists Awarded NIH Grant for Data Science Initiative in Africa

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Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health received an award from the National Institutes of Health last month for their program focused on improving data science in Africa.

The program — “Research Training on Harnessing Data Science for Global Health Priorities in Africa” — is a collaboration with scientists at Heidelberg University to create a “training hub” at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa to build the capacity of data systems in Africa. Through a strong data science infrastructure, the researchers believe Africa will make strides in its healthcare systems and its fight against climate change.

The Harvard-affiliated program was one of 19 research initiatives that the NIH recognized on Oct. 26 with a total award of $74.5 million.

The initiative will also include UKZN South Africa’s partner institutions in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda, which make up the Africa Research Implementation Science and Education Network. The program aims to strengthen the data science capacity of those partner institutions, with a focus on tackling critical global health challenges through data.

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“The whole vision really comes from a long-standing partnership — and that’s the key word we use — between us and our collaborators,” said Wafaie Fawzi, a principal investigator of the program. “Our common purpose is really to have an impact on the health of populations.”

According to Fawzi, “data science is a new field that’s bringing together various disciplines from statistics and epidemiology to computer science and machine learning.”

The program is designed as a “hub and spoke” model, per Fawzi. The so-called “hub” of the program is in Durban, South Africa, at the UKZN South Africa, where researchers plan to establish a new master’s degree program in health data science. The goal of the hub, Fawzi said, is to “train the trainers,” who will eventually become the “spokes” of the program by bringing their expertise to the program’s partner institutions in Ghana and Nigeria in West Africa, and Tanzania and Uganda in East Africa.

Fawzi said that data on public health and the environment in Africa already exists. The program aims to develop a generation of data scientists in Africa who can use the data to improve public health in the region.

“The purpose of this proposal is to train the next generation of leaders in this area that can harness the data that’s already there, and make use of it for the benefit of population health.”

The researchers believe that the self-sustaining program will lead to better management of limited medical and hospital resources and more precise diagnoses, according to Fawzi.

The coronavirus pandemic reaffirmed the importance of expanding data science studies in African nations, Fawzi said.

By being able to organize health and resource data effectively, African nations will be one step ahead in pandemic preparedness, which Fawzi says relies on “the ability to access data from multiple sources in a short period of time, in a way that can be integrated across places and across domains.”

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