Columbia Mailman Joins NIH Effort to Bolster Data Science in Africa

October 26, 2021

The National Institutes of Health is investing about $74.5 million over five years to advance data science, catalyze innovation, and spur health discoveries across Africa. Under its new Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa) program, the NIH announced 19 awards to research partners in the U.S. and globally, including one to support a project led by scientists at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

The $1.7 million award will create new training programs in health data science in Eastern Africa, with an initial focus on starting new MS programs in public health data science, first at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and then at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia—with immersion in real data programs by partnering with several ongoing research projects in the region.

The initiative will be carried out in collaboration with the Data Science Institute and Department of Statistics at Columbia University, Schools of Public Health and Information Science at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, and the Schools of Public Health and School of Mathematics at University of Nairobi in Kenya. The Columbia Global Center in Nairobi will serve as a regional hub for key grant-related activities.

Program goals include the development of sustainable MS programs, faculty mentoring programs, and a short-term training program for a wide spectrum of trainees, including from partnering governmental and non-governmental stakeholders and the private sector.

Training efforts will leverage ongoing research projects led by team members or affiliated partners on environmental health, exposure assessment, remote satellite data, occupational exposures, climate change, infectious diseases, health surveillance, and health system monitoring and evaluation, which will be used as immersion opportunities to enable hands-on experience with new data science techniques for trainees.

“There is a huge opportunity to harness the unprecedented abundance and complexity of health data to address the multi-pronged health challenges in sub-Saharan Africa,” says the grant’s principal investigator, Kiros Berhane, chair of Biostatistics at Columbia Mailman. “The rigorous, biomedically grounded, and ethically conscious programs we will develop are designed to train a new generation of data scientists to support this kind of work.”

The grant (1U2RTW012123) comes through the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, Fogarty International Center, and the NIH Office of the Director. In line with its commitment to global capacity building in data science for health, the Columbia Mailman School Dean’s Office is providing an additional $125,000 toward the development of online materials on data science for health.

Altogether, the NIH DS-I Africa awards will establish a consortium consisting of a data science platform and coordinating center, seven research hubs, seven data science research training programs and four projects focused on studying the ethical, legal, and social implications of data science research. Awardees will have a robust network of partnerships across the African continent and in the United States, including numerous national health ministries, non-governmental organizations, corporations, and other academic institutions.

“This initiative has generated tremendous enthusiasm in all sectors of Africa’s biomedical research community,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins in the NIH announcement. “Big data and artificial intelligence have the potential to transform the conduct of research across the continent, while investing in research training will help to support Africa’s future data science leaders and ensure sustainable progress in this promising field.”