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January 26, 2021

Data as a public good: Lessons from Ebola and the Rockefeller Foundation

Steven VanRoekel, who was chief innovation officer of the US response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, says data has the same development potential as electricity.

By Edward Qualtrough

Steven VanRoekel is no stranger to disease outbreaks. He worked on the Ebola response in West Africa during his tenure as chief innovation officer of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), after serving as US federal CIO under President Obama. Now, he is chief operating officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped develop the vaccine to eradicate yellow fever in the first half of the 20th century.

This experience has borne two valuable lessons that all technology leaders can draw from. The first is the transformational potential of data, which VanRoekel believes could be as vital to development as electrification. The second is the central role that executives with an understanding of data and technology have in transforming their organisation’s operations. “I can’t emphasise enough the importance of CIOs to take more of a broader operational lens into their work,” he says.

Rockefeller Foundation coo Steven VanRoekel

Rockefeller Foundation chief operating officer Steven VanRoekel. (Photo courtesy of Rockefeller Foundation)

Fighting the Ebola outbreak

When VanRoekel joined USAID in 2014, after having served as the second-ever US federal CIO under President Barack Obama, the gravity of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was just becoming clear. “It was just a fog of information, much like the coronavirus pandemic we’re in the midst of now,” VanRoekel recalls.

“We couldn’t pinpoint where the cases were coming from, what were the chains of transmission, where the hotspots were. Logistically we had challenges around blood testing – Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever, it’s a disease that will kill you in five or six days and unless you can test for blood and get interventions on people immediately, then you can’t get a hold of it.”

With blood tests taking days, emergency teams not knowing where to place labs and deliver supplies, VanRoekel was challenged to work with United Nations and local healthcare teams in Liberia, one of the worst-hit nations along with Sierra Leone and Guinea, to put data at the heart of their response. This meant “really streamlining data and figuring out how to innovate in the context of a fast-moving situation”.

Technology is never the answer to anything – but it’s part of the answer to almost everything.

Following an operational toolkit developed during the Obama administration, and working the US 101st Airborne Division – an infantry unit of air assault specialists – data scientists and Dr Hans Rosling who led the Liberia healthcare team, VanRoekel said that “we were able very quickly to have daily situational reports that told us where to drop labs and put supplies”, and help eradicate in a matter of months an epidemic that was predicted to last for much longer.

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“Our team does not take credit for that; it was the amazing work of the Liberians,” VanRoekel said. “We just unleashed them with data, which is really the mode we are in now with the coronavirus pandemic. Data sets you free, and gets you into understanding how this thing moves, what’s happening, and what are the behaviour changes which need to happen.”

One of the key lessons VanRoekel drew from that time, he says is “that technology is never the answer to anything – but it’s part of the answer to almost everything”.

Data as a public good

Science and technology-driven philanthropy is still the driving force for the Rockefeller Foundation, VanRoekel says, more than a century after its founding by Standard Oil’s John D Rockefeller and his son, John D Rockefeller Jr. The foundation has assets of more than $4bn and makes hundreds of millions of dollars in grants each year.

John D Rockefeller “had this premise that science, as it stood in the early 1900s, could have a leapfrog effect on improving the lives of people around the world”, VanRoekel explains. “In today’s world, that translates out of the molecular science of vaccines and the biology of seed varietals that ended up fostering the Green Revolution, and has merged really into things like data science, communication science, satellite science, AI and machine learning and all the cutting edge technologies we see driving an outsized impact.”

However, some of the most impactful technologies are also the longest established. Electrification is a ‘leapfrog’ technology that can help people in the poorest places on the planet better irrigate crops, study at night and improve healthcare, VanRoekel explains. “It’s very simple, but providing some electrification services in remote parts of the world has that potential to unlock the connectedness of knowledge transfer, for transactions, for everything else,” he says.

Data has similar potential, VanRoekel believes. Treating data as a public good, and making it openly accessible to researchers and entrepreneurs, will provide an incredible transitional effect in improving lives globally, he argues. In January last year, the Rockefeller Foundation relaunched its initiative, which seeks to support innovation in the use of data to tackle society’s “most pressing challenges”.

From IT to operations

VanRoekel joined the Foundation as chief operating officer in October 2018. He has responsibility for the organisation’s operations, HR, and finance teams, as well as IT, but one of his key objectives has been “shifting technology use… from being a cost centre to being a strategic profit centre”.

CIOs should be a natural on-ramp to being a COO, because of the role technology is playing in touching every employee across an organisation.

This has meant building an organisational culture that centres on data and technology – something his experience as a CIO prepared him well for. “I can’t emphasise enough the importance of CIOs to take more of a broader operational lens into their work,” he says. “CIOs should be a natural on-ramp to being a COO in some ways, because of the role technology is playing in touching every employee across an organisation.

“In the time of this Covid pandemic, this is operations’ and technology’s moment to shine and to transition from a kind of rote mechanical function into a really, really strategic part – to think about the way we work, the way we collaborate, the way we produce results and impact, and data’s opportunity to help us there is profound.”

Developing a robust, core IT infrastructure and creating a results-focused culture prepared the organisation well for the current circumstances of working remotely during a global pandemic, VanRoekel says.

“When the world faces a pandemic, a lot of organisations have to run and go into survival mode,” he explains. “An organisation like the Rockefeller Foundation, instead of running away from the burning building, we have to run into it and work on fixing things.” The foundation’s Covid-focused work includes creating action plans for global testing and equitable vaccine delivery.

Now, VanRoekel is considering how the foundation will function as it emerges from the pandemic. It is currently remodelling its headquarters, he explains, introducing measures such as UV lighting to disinfect surfaces and air recirculation systems to reduce the possible spread of airborne viruses.

The new US IT agenda

Earlier this month, Tech Monitor heard from one of VanRoekel’s successors as White House CIO, Tony Scott, about the biggest opportunities, challenges and priorities for the incoming administration and its technology leadership. VanRoekel echoes Scott’s comments that balancing developing new digital services while tackling the legacy IT aspects of government, and mitigating ongoing cyberthreats, should be the focus for the current administration.

Technology will also play a crucial role in patching up the relationship between citizens and their governments, he believes, in the US and elsewhere.

“We have seen over the past four years at a minimum, and probably extending before that, across the globe a sort of distrust of institutions and political discourse in societies,” VanRoekel says. “Regaining the trust of citizens in their government and translating that work; IT will play a really big role in that I believe, and will be a big part of how the government should think about moving forwards.”

Home page photo by Zoom Dosso/AFP via Getty Images.

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