Improving Accountability and Decision-Making for Nutrition: Can ICTs Fill the Data Gaps?

Undernutrition in early life can have devastating and life-long consequences for physical growth as well as cognitive and social development. Effective nutrition monitoring systems are therefore crucial for governments and other agencies to capture undernutrition in its early stages, track trends and inform rapid decision-making. Credible and timely data is also important to hold stakeholders accountable for their commitment to deliver nutrition services and combat undernutrition.

However, nutrition monitoring is expensive and laborious and, therefore, often non-existent in resource-poor countries. Traditional monitoring systems are also constrained by time-consuming and error-prone paper-based data collection followed by manual data entry. Consequently, monitoring of nutrition in real time to allow a rapid response to nutritional crises is frequently impossible.

In recent years, there has been increasing enthusiasm for the potential of Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) to facilitate faster and less work-intensive nutrition monitoring. ICTs have the potential to enable quicker data collection, transfer and analysis, which can inform decision-making in a timely manner. Data can also be fed back to communities and civil societies to enable them to hold governments and other stakeholders accountable for their commitments to undernutrition reduction.

Despite the huge interest in ICTs for nutrition monitoring, our recent review found very few studies that critically evaluated the use of ICTs for nutrition surveillance. The review identified some evidence that ICTs may make tracking and monitoring of nutrition quicker and more efficient, for example, by speeding up data transfer and reducing data entry errors.

Nevertheless, there is still little sense of how nutrition monitoring data can be used most effectively and what role ICTs may play in this. Some of the unanswered questions are:

  • What ‘enabling conditions’ are necessary to facilitate the up-take and use of ICT-based nutrition monitoring data to inform decision-making and increase accountability for nutrition (e.g. perceived credibility, relevance and persuasiveness of the data, trust in ICTs and their potential, active demand for real-time nutrition data)?
  • Which factors hinder the up-take and use of ICT-based nutrition monitoring data (e.g. does a culture of data-informed decision-making exist? Which other factors influence nutrition decision-making? Are resources available to allow for rapid responses?)
  • How and to whom should nutrition monitoring data be communicated to elicit responsiveness? (e.g. governments, civil society organisations, communities)
  • More data does not automatically mean better data. How to ensure high quality of ICT-enabled nutrition monitoring systems?
  • Data do not speak by themselves. How to contextualise nutrition monitoring data to enable effective use?
  • How can ICTs support the effective up-take and use of nutrition monitoring data?

In our ongoing evaluation study on the use of mobile phone technology for nutrition service delivery in Indonesia, we are actively exploring these questions. We will report our findings in reports and further blogs soon.