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Q&A with Sarah Boyd: how we are moving Tropical Data forward through COVID-19

Sightsavers, August 2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic putting a stop to field work, Tropical Data’s work supporting surveys to help highlight where neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a public health issue has not been possible.

However, the team has been using this time wisely. By investing in improving processes and engagement they will have a head start once field activities resume.

We speak to Tropical Data’s data analyst, Sarah Boyd, to find out what she and the team have been working on while travel hasn’t been possible and many of us have been advised to stay at home.

The Tropical Data team working on trachoma surveys in Arusha in 2019.
Sarah (right) working with Tropical Data colleagues Sumon Ray and Emma Harding-Esch on trachoma surveys, Tanzania 2019.

Sarah, how would you describe Tropical Data’s ‘business as usual’ activities?

Normally, Tropical Data supports health ministries around the world to conduct surveys for NTDs, mostly for trachoma. The surveys highlight where a disease is a public health problem, allowing countries to better target their efforts against the disease.

Before COVID-19, we would usually be developing and reviewing survey protocols alongside health ministries, planning and conducting training sessions to certify survey team members for upcoming field work, supporting the collection and cleaning of survey data, and analysing survey results.

Can you tell us a bit about the Tropical Data team?

The Tropical Data service is run by four partners: the International Trachoma Initiative, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), RTI International and Sightsavers.

Our small team is made up of data specialists, epidemiologists and programme managers from around the world. Although we all work on the same project, we span three different continents and represent all of the partner organisations. Beyond our core team, there are more than 200 trainers worldwide that support the service.

What is your role with Tropical Data?

I am a data analyst based at the International Trachoma Initiative, and I work in the Tropical Data data management team. My main job is to support health ministries before and during their surveys. Before a survey, I set up the data management tools needed: creating survey forms on the Tropical Data phone application and making sure everything is ready from our side when data arrives from the field.

When the teams start their surveys, my role is to actively support the collection of standardised data. For each project, survey recorders in the field use mobile phones to collect the data, which they upload to a secure server at the end of each day. Once the data begins to reach the server, my task is to provide near real-time updates about survey progress to the health ministry team.

I also identify and help to resolve any issues with the data. For example, if a recorder’s phone did not record a GPS location for a couple of households, I’ll bring this issue to the survey supervisor’s attention. The supervisor is then able to address this issue with the recorder before the next day of surveys. This feedback loop helps to ensure teams collect high-quality data.

What has been the biggest impact of COVID-19 on Tropical Data’s work?

Like any other team, COVID-19 has greatly affected our lives and interrupted our ‘normal’. However, we are fortunate that we’re used to working in different locations and time zones: we’re already accustomed to holding weekly virtual team calls and had a system for working remotely together.

Normally, Tropical Data is supporting active survey projects all the time, but as health ministries take precautions against COVID-19, trachoma work has slowed down. There are no active surveys in the field at the moment, but we can still prepare for when teams can start surveys again!

In collaboration with health ministries, Tropical Data has continued to work on preparing protocols and supporting planning, so the projects are ready for when field work is able to resume.

“Tropical Data has continued to work on preparing protocols and supporting planning, so the projects are ready for when field work is able to resume.”

An eye health worker holds a mobile phone to record data, as a boy in the background looks on.
Data is gathered using smartphones, meaning that Sarah can help check its accuracy remotely.

What else have you been focused on during this time?

In February, before programmes were paused and travel restrictions were put in place, the Tropical Data team got together for a week at LSHTM. We developed a list of updates and changes to improve the Tropical Data service to better support health ministries. We planned to work on these improvements in between our usual tasks, but we have now had the chance to be more focused on them.

Ana Bakhtiari (our lead systems analyst) and I (together, the ‘data team’), have been able to tackle some big projects. I am working on improving the format and content of our updates that get sent to the teams in the field, and Ana is working on an updated public version of the Tropical Data analysis code, so health ministries can easily reproduce their survey results.

What do you see as Tropical Data’s biggest achievements during this time?

As part of the improvements we’ve been making, we have been creating tutorials, guidelines and FAQs for each stage of the Tropical Data survey process. These new materials will serve as quick reminders and reference tools, providing better support to those already familiar with our service and those who are new to it. These will be uploaded to our resources page once they are finalised.

Another cool achievement is Tropical Data’s work to support health ministries’ publication development. Dr Bert Butcher, who joined the Tropical Data team at the end of 2019, has been assisting interested health ministries in publishing the results of their Tropical Data surveys.

He and another Tropical Data colleague, Dr Michael Dejene, have been running a virtual publication workshop for partners in Ethiopia with Dr Fikreab Kebede (Ministry of Health) and Dr Wondu Alemayehu (Fred Hollows Foundation). You can read more about this in our Tropical Data newsletter coming out soon (sign up to our newsletter here).

Meanwhile, Cristina Jimenez, our programme manager, also did a complete redesign of our application portal to make it easier to submit requests for our support with surveys. She did a great job, and it looks amazing!

Eye health staff examine a child's eyes and record the results on a mobile phone.

Tropical Data initiative

This large-scale project uses smartphones to gather data for targeting trachoma treatment as part of the global fight towards trachoma elimination.

Learn more

What has been your greatest challenge during COVID-19?

My day-to-day job has significantly changed! The biggest challenge for me has been the shift in my work. I’m a data person and I love what I do; I love supporting survey field work. So it’s been a big change to no longer be working on surveys and instead be working on these programme improvements.

But while it has been different not spending our days writing database queries, it’s great knowing that everything we can accomplish during this time will in turn provide better support for health ministries in the future.

How will the team’s work improve the Tropical Data service going forward?

Overall, we hope that the work we are currently producing will improve health ministries’ experiences using Tropical Data throughout the entire survey process. From the data side specifically, all the improvements we’re undertaking will make our data management website and tools even easier to use.

Our goal is for health ministries to have a better understanding of what services we provide and how to access them. We hope this work will make Tropical Data even more user-friendly for everyone!

“I'm a data person and I love what I do; I love supporting survey field work.”


Sarah Boyd.Sarah Boyd is a data analyst for Tropical Data, based at the International Trachoma Initiative.

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