Data, Innovation, Impact: Dr Godwin Ubong Akpan’s Commitment to a Responsive Health System in Africa

Dr Godwin Ubong Akpan
Dr Godwin Ubong Akpan

Amid the intricacies of global health challenges, there emerges a leader uniquely poised to navigate the complexities—Dr Godwin Ubong Akpan. As the Regional Lead for Information Systems, Innovation and Data Analytics at the World Health Organization, Godwin is not merely a professional—he is an award-winning precision public health solution expert with a mantra that echoes through his 18+ years of comprehensive experience. His journey is defined by drawing on the power of big data, predictive analyses and timely surveillance to deliver interventions with pinpoint accuracy.

In precision public health, Godwin stands as an adept navigator, specializing in leveraging data, digital health and GIS to elucidate problems, bridge gaps in disease surveillance and immunization, predict outbreaks and guide program responses. His expertise extends beyond conventional boundaries shaping cutting-edge technology solutions for the United Nations/World Health Organization. Godwin’s career is dedicated to the transformative potential of data in public health.

Let’s delve into the narrative of the architect of precision interventions ensuring the right solutions reach the right people at the right time!

From Data to Action

In 2004, Godwin’s foray into precision public health began with a realization of the revolutionary potential of technology in addressing complex health issues. Volunteering for an NGO in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, he meticulously collected data on waterborne and respiratory diseases pre and post-oil spills. Godwin, armed with health data, advised an oil and gas company on the consequences of a significant increase in health issues following each oil spill.

Triangulating data from affected individuals’ homes, water sources and exposure to gas flare, he pinpointed spill locations. His insights drove the company to action providing stable water sources and compensating the affected communities. This firsthand experience ignited Godwin’s passion for precision public health, leading him to join the World Health Organization in 2005 as a Data Manager.

Since then, his journey evolved from traditional methods to cutting-edge technologies, emphasizing tailored interventions and utilizing predictive analytics for strategies that save lives and improve overall health outcomes. Godwin’s story exemplifies the transformative power of data-driven solutions, making precision public health not just a career, but a mission to enhance global well-being.

Tech Innovation Meets Regional Realities

In the realm where cutting-edge technology meets the complexities of regional diversity, Godwin’s strategy is nuanced in tailoring technological solutions to the specific needs of diverse regions and member states. His role at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Africa has been pivotal in honing this approach.

For seven years, Godwin has grappled with the realities of public health in the African region a high disease burden, averaging over 100 outbreaks annually. With 47 member states actively engaged in public health interventions, he emphasizes the need for effective technology management to support disease surveillance and provide early warnings. The goal is clear—ensuring interventions reach underserved populations and target specific areas for impactful outcomes.

In this context, Godwin recognizes the African continent’s demand for robust surveillance systems making technology pivotal. His implementation of digital health solutions is marked by an open-minded approach and active listening to countries’ unique needs. This collaborative engagement ensures that technological solutions align with cultural contexts, allowing for the seamless integration of innovations. The result is an adaptive approach that guarantees the relevance and effectiveness of cutting-edge technologies across diverse regions reflecting Godwin’s commitment to navigating the intersection of technology and regional diversity for the betterment of public health.

Holistic Precision

Navigating disease forecasting’s complexities, Godwin’s team adopts a dynamic and innovative approach of embracing advanced analytics and machine learning models, continuously refining them to tackle emerging trends.

In the realm of One-health Surveillance, where human, animal and environmental factors interplay which is a holistic strategy is imperative. Godwin elucidates their process including grid, overlay, contextualize, classify, and spatially analyze composite data to forecast diseases. Triangulating epidemic intelligence from health facilities across Africa is key to the strategic positioning of health commodities for mitigation.

The challenges posed by COVID-19 were intricate, requiring a focus on non-pharmaceutical interventions and the absence of vaccines. Godwin emphasizes the importance of understanding disease transmissibility in each African country by drilling down to factors like health system continuity, oxygen availability and mask production. Normalizing qualitative data to a quantitative context and empowering local health systems proved crucial in the pandemic response.

Godwin acknowledges the pivotal role of the private sector in fostering and harnessing the best technologies. Their collaborative mindset is evident, “always thinking collaboratively and searching for that solution or idea that will help us stay ahead to save lives and make a difference.”

Continuous training maintains the team’s agility in adapting to evolving methodologies fostering a culture of adaptability that ensures they stay ahead in the ever-changing global health landscape. This unveils Godwin’s commitment to innovation, collaboration and adaptability emphasizing their mission to make a difference in saving lives.

Innovating for Change

In the global landscape of data-driven solutions, Godwin acknowledges challenges like disparate infrastructures, limited internet access and the high cost of transporting data. In Africa, where internet penetration is modest, he’s part of the team pioneering offline data collection solutions for active disease surveillance. Although overcoming internet challenges, timeliness remains an issue.

To tackle these obstacles, innovative solutions like zero-rating data through partnerships with telecommunications companies have been initiated. Godwin emphasizes the importance of establishing close user groups for health workers to facilitate efficient data transfer and communication, as witnessed in the AVADAR program improving Polio surveillance.

Maintaining a balance between standardization and flexibility, their solutions cater to diverse needs. Regular communication and collaboration with stakeholders identify region-specific opportunities ensuring data-driven solutions have a global impact.

Despite challenges, the vast opportunities are embraced as communities and member states eagerly welcome interventions that address tangible public health issues while respecting privacy and cultural sensitivities. This reflects the commitment to overcoming challenges with innovative solutions ensuring data-driven impact on a global scale.

Thrive and Contribute

Grounded in openness, empowerment and continuous learning, Godwin champions leadership that fosters innovation and collaboration which is greatness emerges from the excellence of the atmosphere and environment that nurtures and inspires. His commitment extends to creating an empowering work environment for everyone, even within reporting hierarchies. Notably, WHO recognizes this as a core competency for managerial roles like creating an empowering environment.

Godwin prioritizes a culture that encourages curiosity, innovation and knowledge sharing. His approach involves recognizing and celebrating diverse talents, promoting open communication and providing resources for skill development. These efforts aim to cultivate a dynamic and collaborative team culture showcasing his belief that effective leadership is about creating an atmosphere where individuals can thrive and contribute to the greater good.

Striking the Balance

In leading a Polio Surveillance/Outbreak intervention in Ndjamena, Chad, Godwin emphasizes precision public health’s essence of delivering precise health interventions to specific populations at optimal times. Employing digital elevation models and population raster maps, he strategically traces sewage paths for Environmental Sewage Surveillance for Polio.

Local context unexpectedly played a pivotal role when a community leader revealed a soap factory draining into the canal, altering the sampling strategy. Combining technology and local knowledge, a new sampling point upstream led to the isolation of a circulating Poliovirus prompting a targeted vaccination campaign.

Cultural sensitivity is paramount. Godwin highlights the importance of engaging local teams and leaders, incorporating their insights and implementing iterative improvements based on community responses the data-driven solutions align with diverse cultural contexts. In some communities, religious beliefs mandate vaccinations and recordings only by women showcasing the necessity of adapting strategies for acceptance and effectiveness.

Godwin’s experiences underscore that precision public health isn’t just about advanced technology but also about embracing local insights and cultural nuances for effective and targeted interventions. His approach ensures that precision is not just a technical term but a method that respects and adapts to the unique contexts of the communities it serves.

Data Bytes for a Healthier Africa

Staying at the forefront of data science and analytics involves active participation in industry conferences, continuous education programs and fostering a culture of shared learning within the team. Godwin prioritizes regular training sessions and knowledge-sharing forums which encourages team members to pursue professional development opportunities. He emphasizes a collective commitment to staying updated.

Recently, at the World Data Summit, Godwin spoke on ‘Fighting Diseases in the African Region One Data Byte at a Time,’ gaining insights from thought leaders in data science beyond public health. His approach accentuates the importance of actively engaging in forums to stay abreast of the latest advancements in the field.

Mentorship often plays a crucial role in professional growth. Have you had a mentor who significantly influenced your approach to precision public health and how do you mentor others in your field?

In Godwin’s journey, mentorship proves pivotal. Learning from seasoned professionals provided valuable insights into precision public health. With mentors from universities to the United Nations, he draws inspiration from technology icons like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Tim Cook, and Satya Nadella identifying with their passion for innovation. He aims to ‘brighten his corner with some of their brilliance and thought process.’

Nurturing a mentorship culture within the team facilitates knowledge transfer and fosters the growth of emerging talents. Godwin’s approach exemplifies the reciprocal nature of mentorship where learning from others is coupled with a commitment to guide and uplift the next generation.

Data, Tech, Action

Godwin highlights key trends in precision public health, noting the integration of AI for more accurate predictions, GIS for spatially answering the question of precisely where, blockchain for secure health data management, and the integration of data from diverse sources.

To stay ahead, they’re investing in AI and machine learning capabilities, exploring GIS applications and data lakes which in turn helps in fostering cross-disciplinary collaborations. This forward-looking approach ensures their precision public health strategies remain at the forefront of technological advancements underscoring their commitment to harnessing innovation for more effective and accurate public health interventions.

Crisis to Control

In the throes of the 2014 Ebola Outbreak in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Godwin recognized the pivotal importance of timely decision-making and timely contact tracing for over 500 contacts to the Index Ebola case. Faced with delays in paper-based data entry, he revolutionized the process by digitizing paper forms into accessible electronic formats for basic mobile phones.

This innovation enabled real-time data entry during daily visits to Ebola contacts, incorporating geocoordinates for near real-time analysis by the epidemiology/surveillance team. The game-changer, however, was the geospatial marking of house visits via mobile phones, transforming logistical efficiency. Efficiently planning routes and team movements based on location drastically reduced response time in a city of over 7 million people.

The outcome? Swift, data-informed actions that lead to targeted interventions mitigating the outbreak’s impact and ultimately saving lives. This electronic process has been replicated across surveillance facets from contact tracing to immunization, genomics and geospatial methodologies. Godwin emphasizes the pursuit of impactful interventions in the shortest possible time.

The success vividly illustrates the pivotal role of timely, data-driven decision-making in achieving positive public health outcomes, showcasing Godwin’s commitment to innovation for effective responses in critical situations.

Beyond Conventions

Godwin expresses excitement about the exhilarating potential impact of data science and analytics in global public health. Envisioning a leadership role, he aims to pioneer more innovative data assemblages and analytic approaches, fostering collaborations and contributing to the global discourse.

His goal is clear—achieving more targeted interventions, reducing health disparities ultimately saving lives and sharpening our early warning systems through integrating data sources beyond the conventional themes. Godwin envisions a responsive health system in the African region, driven by data with the ultimate aim of preventing morbidity and mortality. This vision highlights his commitment to leveraging data science for the betterment of public health on a global scale.