S.E.T. for socio-economic growth
South African Population Research Infrastructure Network (SAPRIN)
The 2019/2020 NSTF-South32 for Data for Research Award was won by South African Population Research Infrastructure Network (SAPRIN) for collectively conceiving, developing and implementing SAPRIN, which produces up-to-date information on health and socio-economic wellbeing, representative of South Africa’s population. The information is used for scientific analysis, embedding research projects and policy evaluation.
The multi-stakeholder model is not for the fainthearted. It makes sense in theory — let’s bring everyone together and scale things up — but it’s a colossal undertaking that needs the right leadership and expertise. The South African Population Research Infrastructure Network (Saprin) is such a model, and it works.
“Saprin produces up-to-date information on health and socioeconomic wellbeing, representative of South Africa’s population,” explains Professor Mark Collinson. He is co-director at Saprin and reader at the MRC-Wits Agincourt Unit, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) School of Public Health.
It is Collinson and Dr Kobus Herbst that comprise the team behind the Saprin concept. Herbst is the Saprin director and a faculty member at the African Health Research Institute (AHRI). Both have extensive experience in population research. Saprin itself is hosted by the South African Medical Research Council (MRC).
Saprin’s central management hub ensures standardised ethical methods and processes and provides access to resources. This allows for harmonisation. Around the central hub are nodes (based at universities) that survey local populations. The output — the anonymised data — is then used, in multiple ways, for research and government decision-making. Open data principles mean open access to data.
Currently, there are four health and demographic surveillance system (HDSS) nodes, covering 350 000 individuals of all ages. The nodes are based at: MRC/Wits-Agincourt in Mpumalanga, Dimomo at University of Limpopo, and the AHRI linked to the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The fourth is a new node starting in Gauteng called GRT-INSPIRED. It is run by Wits and the Universities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. The aim is to have a minimum of seven nodes across the country.
The Saprin model provides a harmonised, distributed, national platform for population research; a longitudinal collection of population, health and socioeconomic data for geographically-defined sections of poorer communities. Individual and household indicators routinely collected include vital events: births and deaths; residence and migration; socioeconomic status; disease monitoring; and measures of wellbeing represented by labour status, education and social protection.
Each HDSS node is embedded in a community and engagement is seen as essential. This includes providing feedback and links to services such as community nurses. Research operations employ between 400-500 people from the communities.
As part of expanding human capacity in this type of research, there are usually between 20-30 graduate students linked to the nodes.
Beyond the central management hub, the Saprin platform has trained staff, statisticians and laboratory personnel (for blood work and disease testing). This type of centralisation means new HDSS nodes are able to integrate easily into the existing platform — it’s almost as if they can “plug and play”. While harmonisation and integration is key, there is also enough autonomy for nodes to operate in their individual contexts.
Saprin offers access to an extensive, interdisciplinary platform for researchers from universities, science councils and other organisations including regional and international collaborations. Beyond data access, Saprin works with research partners regarding customised data needs, assists with study design and conducts training.
The national research infrastructure is a collaboration between government agencies, universities and local communities. The innovative funding model sees the Department of Science and Innovation fund the platform, and external funders are investing in research projects embedded in the platform.
“Using this model, Saprin aims to contribute to a trans-continental network across Africa,” says Collinson. — Debbi Schultz
To read the full Mail & Guardian supplement of articles about the work of all the 2020 Award Winners, click here.