Adolescents at the launch of the Busia County Nutrition Action Plan supported by Nutrition International

The COVID-19 pandemic drew substantial investment into data analytics and visualization in global and public health. Developers stepped up with succinct and informative infographics and dashboards for public consumption, which were also adopted by government and public health institutes to inform decisions in this rapidly changing environment. With the global burden of malnutrition exacerbated by the pandemic, the nutrition community needs to better utilize available data and tools to drive change and build disruption-resilient systems that ensure timely and informed actions.

Nutrition International has created novel data collection and analytic tools to further strengthen high-impact, low-cost nutrition interventions targeting those most in need with improved nutrition. Read on to learn what data tools are currently available for the global nutrition community – and what more needs to happen to harness the potential of data for nutrition action.

The importance of nutrition data

Quality and timely use of data plays a multipurpose role in the nutrition arena. In advocacy, nutrition data helps increase awareness and secure funding for programs and interventions. It guides evidence-informed programs and policies when key decisions are being made. It plays an important role within monitoring and evaluation by helping to assess coverage and quality of program implementation. Additionally, and critically, it helps to keep us accountable by being able to measure and track impact and progress.

While availability of data is fundamental, we believe that timely collection, meaningful analyses and informed interpretation and dissemination of data are essential to unlock data’s true potential. The latter is critical to support effective program and policy decision-making amongst government and community partners.

In 2020, the Data for Decisions to Expand Nutrition Transformation (DataDENT) Initiative conducted a landscaping of over 20 data visualization tools in nutrition to examine best practices and lessons. One of the common shortcomings they found was the ability to drive change through actionable indicators using these tools. Fostering an enabling environment through which decision makers are guided towards positive change and impact cannot be overlooked; this is a gap that Nutrition International remains committed to addressing.

Leveraging data for nutrition action

Across the continuum of action, the integration of data to enable decision-making are supported by Nutritional International through various entry points. Areas of focus related to data for nutrition action are summarized in Figure 1.

Data for nutrition action activities supported by Nutrition International include data collection and surveillance, data analysis, modelling and tools, data visualization, data translation and dissemination. 

The Global Technical Services unit at Nutrition International has led and supported the timely analysis and development of tools to effectively use data and guide decision-making – from data collection systems to novel visualization tools. Below are four recent examples:

  • Data collection and surveillance: Program monitoring and reporting at Nutrition International leverages government systems, such as Health Management Information Systems, along with nationally representative household surveys like demographic and health surveys. The Nutrition International Monitoring System (NIMS) toolkit is a systematic set of tools to prepare, implement, and manage quality control while collecting, analyzing and reporting survey data in a timely and transparent fashion.
  • Analytical support for subnational governments: Through our Nutrition Technical Assistance Mechanism (NTEAM)’s Technical Assistance for Nutrition (TAN) project, funding with UK aid from the UK Government, Nutrition International supported 11 county governments in Kenya to carry out detailed subnational analyses for the production of county investment cases. Given the shift to decentralized decision-making for investment, the analyses and costed nutrition action plans were critical to driving conversation, decision-making and commitment.
  • Nutrition impact modelling tools: The Outcome Modelling for Nutrition Impact tool (OMNI) brings different data sources together to assess 17 key nutrition interventions that enable governments and stakeholders to rapidly estimate a program’s impact on nutrition-related health outcomes. The user-driven experience can leverage reported program coverage or estimate future program coverage to quantify projected impact (and provide rationale to scale an intervention from current coverage). The tool served as the evidence base behind Nutrition International’s investment case for 2018 to 2024.
  • Data visualization and knowledge translation: Nutrition International developed and launched the Multiple Micronutrient Supplementation (MMS) Cost-Effectiveness Tool to support decision makers in conducting cost-effective analysis of incremental benefit and costs of transitioning from iron folic acid (IFA) to MMS in each country’s context. The tool can be readily accessed online. It allows country-level decision makers the ability to conduct a quick assessment within their local context by entering basic assumptions of the program (e.g., population, timespan of program, coverage, cost for IFA and MMS, and an estimated transition cost). Real-time results illustrate the value of investment and its cost-effectiveness. Customized policy briefs are available for 30+ countries. Results of this analytic tool has been presented to a number of governments, including Pakistan and Ethiopia, during COVID-19.

Building resilience and supporting recovery

 A number of key events are taking place in late 2021 where global leaders are convening to discuss the world’s most pressing issues, from the annual United Nations (UN) General Assembly to the UN Food Systems Summit and the UN World Data Forum. Strengthening the collection of data and monitoring of programs, and driving innovation in data analysis, modeling tools, and visualizations play a key part in evidence-based policy and decision-making across these events.

COVID-19’s immediate and potentially lasting nutrition impacts amongst the most vulnerable populations globally have raised a red flag to the nutrition community on a long-standing issue: the lack of high-quality, readily available nutrition data that is responsive to a rapidly changing environment, deployed through timely analyses, and leading evidence-based decision-making. Currently, the most comprehensive estimates regarding the pandemic’s impact on nutrition are typically based on projections using nutrition modelling tools often lacking timely data insights from frontline realities.

Nutrition International recognizes the need to bolster the capacity of the decision makers we support to deploy data-driven and evidence-based decisions in a timelier manner. Responsive, reliable, and quality data must be put at the centre of nutrition policy and program decisions. Our approach to data for decision-making will also adopt the use of more advanced digital technologies in the collection, analysis and translation of data to ensure resilient and efficient data ecosystems. In the fight against malnutrition, this need could not be greater – and this action is essential to best help those we exist to serve.