By Alyssa Haywoode
BOSTON — COVID-19? There’s an app for that. It was developed by the technology-for-social-impact company Dimagi, and it’s being used across the globe to track the coronavirus pandemic. While it will take a vaccine to eradicate this virus, Dimagi is taking a first step by helping the world collect the data it will take to contain this outbreak.
Infectious diseases aren’t a new topic for Dimagi. Long before COVID-19, Dimagi had developed CommCare, a DIY app builder that tracked these diseases and other health statistics.
App users could abandon pen-and-paper data collecting and customize CommCare to meet their specific needs. The app provided structure for the data by incorporating protocols from international and national health entities like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We worked hard to be able to produce clean and comprehensive data sets for users,” Gillian Javetski, Dimagi’s chief of staff explains. “Our goal was to help CommCare users save time, instead of spending hours developing these tools, governments and organizations could focus on taking these tools, making adjustments, and using them quickly. We’ve seen some organizations and governments launch these tools as quickly as 24 hours.”
In South Africa, CommCare was used to track cardiovascular disease. In Tanzania, it was used to address maternal mortality. And across western Africa, it was used for tracking and contract tracing during the Ebola outbreak.
Then the whole world had a deadly, new challenge: COVID-19.
As the coronavirus spread, Dimagi used funding from the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Johnson & Johnson’s Center for Health Worker Innovation, and the Open Road Alliance to develop its first CommCare COVID-19 template.
The template was released free of charge on March 19th. Dimagi made presentations about the app during several global virtual health events. And a week later, it had been downloaded more than 700 times.
Governments, public health systems, and non-governmental organizations are using the app, either on their own or with customized support from Dimagi.
“The Ministry of Health in Togo is currently using the contact tracing application as part of their COVID-19 response,” Javetski says. “We are also currently adapting the application to be rolled out in Sierra Leone, Zambia, various states in India, and other governments.
“In addition, several non-governmental organizations, including World Vision and Partners in Health, are leveraging their experience with the CommCare platform to adapt the contact tracing application and others for their own COVID-19 response efforts across numerous countries.”
“Other users have gone beyond contract tracing. For example, TulaSalud [the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance of Guatemala] is releasing a series of COVID-19 updates to the app that are being used by 3,000 community health workers. And in Malawi, Riders for Health has deployed a lab tracking CommCare app that it also plans to use in Nigeria, Lesotho, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Gambia.”
Expanding on the initial COVID-19 template, Dimagi has set up a continually updated library of free templates that can handle a range of tasks from contact tracing and port of entry monitoring of ill travelers to health worker training and supply chain tracking. A library of YouTube videos explains some of these uses.
To improve the app, Dimagi has sought out user feedback. One request that the company responded to was the need for greater flexibility.
“While the CommCare mobile application is designed to be used by frontline healthcare providers, we heard from many users that it was critical to also develop a solution that could be used remotely – should an outbreak get to a point where lock-downs were put in place and frontline healthcare providers aren’t able to leave their house,” Javetski says.
“So we quickly adapted the contact tracing application so that it could be run on both a mobile application and as a messaging system via SMS or WhatsApp.”
Taking a creative approach to data collection and analysis is crucial, Dimagi’s co-founder and CEO Jonathan Jackson says.
“When we worked on the Ebola crisis in 2014-2016, one of our partners explained that, ‘If you can’t conduct effective contact tracing, you can’t control the spread of the disease.’ The data you collect from these efforts early on can dictate the trajectory of an outbreak. The more information you have about potential cases and the faster you have it, the more likely you can isolate it and stop the spread.”
What’s next for Dimagi?
“We need much more data than is available to be collected, and we’re beginning to look at how we might use self-reported and crowd-sourced data in conjunction with the formal public sector data sets,” Jackson says.