11/08/2013 02:15 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Driving Blind

One of the requirements for a driver's license is the ability to see. One of the first things you learn in driving school is to keep your eyes on the road in front of you and to glance only briefly and intermittently in the rear-view mirror. And yet, every day in immunization programs around the world, bright, committed health workers are required to do exactly the opposite: they forge ahead blindly, or at best by looking in the rear-view mirror instead of the road ahead.

Today, the managers of most immunization programs depend on reports of what happened in their programs up to 12 months ago. Few have accurate indicators of what's happening right now with their vaccine supplies or their cold chain equipment. They have limited or variable visibility into where to find the children who remain unimmunized and what vaccines they require. Often the information collected doesn't help them make better decisions, or is delivered straight to their superiors where it sits, without ever informing actions on the ground. Decisions about where to deploy workers, which health centers require supervisory visits and which communities require mobilization are often based on old or inadequate data, and frequently on no data at all.

Last week in Nairobi, 10 African countries came together to launch the Better Immunization Data (BID) Initiative. This effort, coordinated by the international NGO PATH and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will support countries to improve immunization system performance by holistically improving multiple aspects of their data systems at scale.

Over the next five years, the BID team will partner with the World Health Organization and work with African countries to change how they collect, transmit and use data to deliver vaccines to those who need them. Unlike many projects that launch in a limited region, the BID initiative aims to operate at a national level. Collecting targeted data in more efficient ways may turn out to be one of the keys to improved vaccine delivery. Many front-line workers suffer under a heavy burden of data collection and reporting that takes precious time away from their other duties.

In the end, the success of the BID initiative will put the countries squarely in the driver's seat, allowing them to navigate with accurate timely data instead of driving blind. As a result, we expect that health care workers will be freed up from unnecessary tasks, able to focus on important work, and their life-saving efforts will be guided by data.