The HISP Centre at the University of Oslo (UiO) has a 30-year history with information systems strengthening, solidified into a vibrant ecosystem around an open-source digital platform, DHIS2. Since 2019, DHIS2 has seen uptake in the education sector in The Gambia, Uganda, Togo, Mozambique, Sri Lanka and eSwatini. The Data Use Innovations for Education Management Information Systems in The Gambia, Uganda, and Togo project is part of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), a joint endeavour with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). By leveraging a proven innovation in the health sector, this project seeks to enhance demand for data use at all levels of the education system.
Participatory design, open-source software, local empowerment and ownership through decentralization, and knowledge- and innovation-sharing have persisted as prominent ideals of HISP.
The HISP ecosystem is made up of long-term partners in DHIS2 development and implementation. HISP groups act as the primary liaison to ministries and are led by DHIS2 experts, several of whom have completed PhD and MSc programmes related to DHIS2/Information Systems at UiO or partner universities. Groups are staffed with experienced implementers, developers and trainers who support national, regional and international projects. University partnerships have played a central role in cultivating in-country human capacity to design, implement and maintain DHIS2 in more than 70 countries, in settings where expert human resources are scarce.
HISP focuses on building implementation and configuration capacity within ministries, ideally in collaboration with local universities – essentially a network approach to capacity building. The aim is that a national workforce takes ownership and uses the DHIS2 platform to configure and maintain their own system, adapting innovations to their context and participating in the co-creation of information system services to support end users. This capacity drives knowledge generation and innovation in the ecosystem that is government owned and responds to local needs.
The focus around DHIS2 from its inception has been on affording “information for action”, which emphasizes the situated nature of value realization through local use.
Knowledge mobilization in an action research project
The project’s approach includes action research on how to create resilient and cost-effective EMIS implementations by working closely with ministries of education (MoEs), with a focus on enabling extensive data use for decision making in selected districts and schools. We understand action research as co-creation of knowledge between researchers and practitioners. Mutual learning is at its heart and involves the establishment of a shared vocabulary for sensemaking across disciplines. This informs jointly identifying a problematic situation and co-creating a solution, for practical problem solving and knowledge generation.
Continuous EMIS strengthening efforts are enabled by long-term investments in local capacity and community resources that shorten the distance between software design and use. Following a participatory approach, the focus is on working closely with ministry officers, managers, and end users to support information system strengthening in accordance with local priorities, creating strong training and capacity building components with significant linkages between education and research institutions, such as local universities, to ensure sustainability.
Owing to the action research and local capacity-building approach, the project engages stakeholders in all aspects of the research, from data collection to analysis, interpretation and dissemination. A wide range of stakeholders are involved in the co-creation: PhD and Master students, senior researchers, practitioners at all levels of the education system (national to school level), local and global developers, designers and consortium partners.
In the Gambia, a resident PhD candidate, based in the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE), is linking policy to practice by following the reorientation of a traditional EMIS to more granular individual level data handling and analysis. HISP West and Central Africa, together with MoBSE, has in tandem designed an individual learner module that captures learners’ bio-socio-economic data, attendance history, continuous assessment and disciplinary record.
With a resident PhD candidate focusing on district empowerment in Uganda, the project is building evidence on how the decentralization of EMIS can support the data management processes at the district level and engage district teams to generate timely and reliable data for evidence-based decision-making. HISP Uganda, with the MoE and Ministry of Health, have developed a districts of excellence model, which engages partners in developing solutions to improving data quality and use for action planning and improved service delivery at district level. The model will support cross-sector links between education and health, contributing directly to the National Development Plan III.
MoBSE, the Gambia hosted the first DHIS2 for Education Academy attended by 8 MoEs and partners, totaling 113 participants. Countries implementing DHIS2 in the education sector shared local innovations developed to solve challenges and held discussions on how to improve data use at multiple levels of the education system. A highlight of the academy was the joint communique acknowledging the need for and the commitment of partners to work in tandem and in complementarity to one another.
The project has helped to highlight the need to recognize the vital role of the local administrative level in aligning policy goals with operational realities on the ground. In this, there is still more to learn from the health sector.
To help develop a workforce that is skilled in EMIS, the University of The Gambia, MoBSE and UiO formed a partnership to establish a Masters programme in information systems, with specialization in education management at the University of The Gambia.
Governments are also endorsing activities and emergent opportunities to scale, that are identified by both MoEs as well as local NGOs. Government commitment to scaling innovations, particularly school-based surveillance for Covid and Ebola in Uganda and the introduction of student profiles in Togo have been positive.
In the Gambia, for the first time, MoBSE is able to rely on individually identifiable data for special needs interventions, in line with policy calling for individualized educational planning for special needs children in schools. The individual registration module made it possible to easily screen and categorize learners with special needs at the time of admission. Previously, EMIS data captured aggregate data on special needs disaggregated by gender and special needs group.
Governments are demonstrating willingness to present suggestions to EMIS policies that have emerged from project activities, for example the inclusion of budget lines and role descriptions of education district statisticians in Uganda.
Finally, through the generation of advocacy documentation in the form of country factsheets, background papers and increased participation in panels/fora, we see increased interest and uptake from new countries. A recent example is national scale implementation in the Kingdom of eSwatini.
Given that the project directly interacts with national-level stakeholders and prioritizes national core team capacity building, there has been open reflection about which services are feasible for national EMIS in low-resource settings to offer at scale to school and community level. Often EMIS strengthening opportunities get lost in complex and overly ambitious preconceived system requirements specifications. Participatory design and action research projects involving developers, implementers, researchers, managers and end users can help identify emergent opportunities and “low hanging fruits” to drive results.