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Strengthening international engagements; data science hub in east Africa and proposals to tackle global challenges

October 29, 2021
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A young child with head sensors.

UZIMA-DS will leverage on machine learning to identify creative solutions to aid health service providers and policymakers within resource constrained environment. Credit AKU

The Aga Khan University, a University of Michigan collaborating institution, is the recipient of a $6.5 million NIH grant to establish a cutting-edge data science hub that will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and other emerging technologies to improve health care delivery in local communities.

Facilitated by the U-M Center for Global Health Equity, the funding will support the Initiative UtiliZing health Information for Meaningful impact in East Africa through Data Science, or UZIMA-DS. It will be the first-of-its-kind enterprise in the region, harnessing artificial intelligence, machine learning and other emerging technologies to improve health and care delivery in local communities.

Akbar Waljee, U-M professor of internal medicine, who assisted in forging a partnership with AKU earlier this year, will serve as co-principal investigator for the grant with Amina Abubakar, director of the Institute for Human Development at AKU.

“I am honored to be working with Professor Abubakar and her colleagues at AKU who share my passion for leveraging AI and machine learning to impact health equity and improve people’s lives,” Waljee said.

Waljee and Abubakar received initial seed funding for their partnership from the Center for Global Health Equity, where Waljee co-leads a Data Science Challenge Group.

The UZIMA-DS project will initially seek to leverage data science to proactively avoid adverse outcomes in maternal and newborn health and mental health. Through machine learning—an application of artificial intelligence—they seek to identify creative solutions to aid health service providers and policymakers within resource-constrained environments.

“Early identification and intervention are critical to a good prognosis in all health conditions,” Abubakar said. “However, in many low- and middle-income countries there is a dearth of tools that can be used for early identification of women, children and young adults at risk of poor physical and mental health.”

The grant is part of the larger NIH Common Fund’s Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa program, that aims to leverage data science technologies to develop solutions to the continent’s most pressing public health problems through a robust ecosystem of new partners from academic, government and private sectors.

“Being able to then translate these emerging technologies for use in East Africa will empower communities to put data to work for better health,” Waljee said. “Moreover, it will provide a potential blueprint for utilization in other settings around the world.”

U-M and AKU have been collaborating on projects since 2019 with an emphasis on research initiatives that use data science to improve health outcomes. U-M is one of the largest public research institutions in the world and enrolls more than 64,000 students annually across its three campuses within the state of Michigan. These students represent 139 countries.

Virtual collaborations overseas

The Center for Academic Innovation is accepting proposals for online courses and series that address the fundamental global challenges facing an increasingly interconnected world.

While the world continues to confront issues brought on by the pandemic, there are critical questions with which countries, organizations and people are grappling every day, from climate change and sustainability to automation and the future of work.

Just as the U-M community embraced the challenges of the pandemic and advanced solutions for online teaching and learning, the university is also uniquely positioned to impact these issues on a global scale.

“U-M is leading higher education toward a blended future, as we continue to address the most pressing challenges facing our world today and tomorrow,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel. “Through our faculty’s commitment to innovation and our ethos of interdisciplinary collaboration, we are extending our university’s public mission and creating a global virtual campus to stand alongside the world-class residential experiences we will always offer.”

Faculty members are encouraged to submit proposals on a wide range of global challenges and work with the center to develop a massive open online course or course series. Proposals will be accepted until Nov. 19 with decisions made in mid-December.

Approved proposals feature a faculty stipend and in-kind support from the center, including instructional design, project management, media production and marketing support. There is also funding for course development assistance and opportunities for shared revenue from course enrollments.

Learners based in more than 200 countries have enrolled in Michigan Online’s portfolio of online learning opportunities more than 15 million times. In addition, current faculty, staff, students and alumni have free lifetime access to U-M’s catalog of courses. The center has worked with faculty to develop nearly 200 MOOCs to date.

Proposals are encouraged in any topic that addresses the grand challenges of an interconnected world, with some high-interest categories including climate change and sustainability, financial technology, artificial intelligence, programming for statisticians and data analysis, robotics, technology and policy related to mobility, the ethics and economics of social media, mental health issues, and humanities.

“In a rapidly changing world, we are extending the mission of U-M through Michigan Online in order to support lifelong learners as they seek to obtain new skills and understand complex problems,” said James DeVaney, founding executive director of the Center for Academic Innovation.

“But understanding problems is not enough. Through Michigan Online, we provide opportunities for perpetual learning and connection—opportunities to explore and obtain new skills; participate in interdisciplinary, interprofessional and intergenerational communities; and create new knowledge to solve the problems that matter most.”

(In collaboration with the Center for Academic Innovation and the Center for Global Health Equity.)

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