Nutrition by the Numbers: Feeding the Data Revolution

When I got my start working on nutrition programs in sub-Saharan Africa thirty years ago, our tools for collecting and reporting data were simple: it was considered a huge innovation when we started using portable computers to calculate anthropometric indices from measures of a child’s height, weight and estimated age, instead of having to look them up manually on a chart. Back then, few of us could have predicted where modern technology would take global health and development data: cell phone reporting systems for healthcare workers, public online data platforms by the World Bank and other major donors, satellite and sensor technology to predict famine and disease outbreaks  – these innovations were unimaginable thirty years ago.

Despite these advancements, when we look at the most basic data for many global health and development sectors, we still see major gaps. This is especially true in nutrition.

Next month, the first ever Global Nutrition Report will be released at the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN 2) in Rome. An outcome of the 2012 Nutrition for Growth convening in London, the report is further evidence that the world is waking up to the critical role that nutrition plays in global health and development. It will provide the first comprehensive look at individual countries’ progress to improve maternal, infant and child nutrition and how well we, as a global community, are supporting them.

In looking across 193 countries and more than 70 nutrition indicators – which range from demographic indicators to outcome data to intervention coverage and financial inputs – the report authors found huge variation in the frequency, quality and type of data countries are collecting. Nearly every country is missing data for some years and indicators, and many (especially the poorest countries) are missing multiple – including data measuring progress toward the World Health Assembly (WHA) nutrition targets that countries  committed to achieve by 2025.

The report authors – an Independent Expert Group of 19 individuals with decades of experience in nutrition – take a detailed look at data gaps across the nutrition sector and offer solutions on how we can address them. They also offer recommendations on how we can improve the way we collect data, enhance our ability to compare data across countries, and – perhaps most importantly – make better use of the data.

It’s this part of the Global Nutrition Report that I am especially excited about. Because while the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation  has a longstanding belief in the power of data for development, we know that power comes not from data alone, but how that data is used by policy makers, program leaders, researchers and advocates.

Across a number of countries and sectors, we have seen data help deliver results. In Senegal, for example, better data helped eliminate contraceptive stockouts at health facilities, giving thousands more women access to family planning. In northern Nigeria, GIS technology is being used to locate unvaccinated communities as part of the “last mile” toward polio eradication. And in the global fight against HIV/AIDS, data has been used to develop highly tailored strategies focused on local drivers of the epidemic, leading to unprecedented increases in people with access to treatment, prevention and care services – one of our biggest global health successes to date.

In nutrition, Viet Nam is a great example of how improved local data can inform more strategic decision-making.  Alive & Thrive and its partners expanded provincial data collection in Viet Nam to include a number of WHO recommended indicators – an increase from five indicators in 2009 to 14 indicators for all 58 provinces and 5 municipalities in 2010. The data was then used to inform a variety of policies and programming at the national and subnational level, including a multi-faceted media and advocacy campaign to empower women to breastfeed. Early results show a dramatic increase in exclusive breastfeeding in Viet Nam after just two years of program implementation, with rates tripling in program areas, from 19 to 63 percent.

When it comes to results that could be achieved with better nutrition data, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg.  For too long in the nutrition community, we’ve been working with incomplete, old or inaccurate data. We have taken important steps to integrate nutrition into health and development plans both nationally and globally. Investing in tracking and collecting data is critical to tracking where we’ve been—and charting a path to where we want to be.

The Global Nutrition Report should be a call to action. It’s time for a data revolution in Nutrition.

Shawn Baker in 1987 using a portable computer in Niger

Shawn Baker in 1987 using a portable computer in Niger