Introducing The Global Health Network: a knowledge-sharing digital platform

The Global Health Network is a digital platform that aims to advance research by providing a mechanism that facilitates collaboration and resource-sharing in global health research.

17 October 2014

About the author: Astrid Erber is the coordinator of the NTDs section of The Global Health Network. She is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, with research interests in clinical trial methodology in an LMIC context, and the evaluation of diagnostics for parasitic diseases under field conditions. 

Two weeks ago, I sat in the audience of a session on mapping neglected tropical diseases (NTD) at the Royal Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (RSTMH) biennial meeting in Oxford, chaired by Prof. Simon Brooker from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and head of GAHI, together with Prof. Bundy from the World Bank and Ms. Jacobson from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In this session, the progress towards control and elimination for many NTDs was mapped out: Dr. Seddoh of the International Finance Corporation was talking about the cost of controlling NTDs in sub-Saharan Africa, Mr. Deribe of the Brighton and Sussex Medical School presented data on modelling of podoconiosis risk in Ethiopia, and Dr. Walker from Sightsavers gave a presentation on the Global Trachoma Mapping Project.  

I couldn't help but feel impressed at all those collaborative efforts and the progress made so far. I am coordinating an area dedicated to NTD research on The Global Health Network, which complements my work towards a doctorate in tropical medicine with a focus on parasitic diseases very well.

The Global Health Network is a thriving system of connected, yet individual, web-based areas that are each led by research groups from all over the world. Each of The Global Health Network’s initiatives focuses on a specific therapeutic area (such as respiratory disease, maternal health, or oncology), type of research (for example, diagnostics or microbiology), or are cross-cutting research support communities (such as clinical trials or bioethics). The Global Health Network can transform research by enabling researchers to share methods across staff levels, communities, regions, diseases and disciplines of global health. A dedicated sub-site focusing on Neglected Tropical Diseases was established to specifically address the needs of that community.

Dissemination of knowledge and results is considered a core element of our work. Already a challenge in high income environments, we believe that it might take a bit more time for it to be adapted in LMIC settings due to various constraints. For that reason, TGHN has established regional faculties and is running workshops in LMICs in collaboration with them. These workshops are great – very lively and focusing on specific topics within a country context. At the same time, often these outcomes are shared online with others in similar settings.

We are specifically paying attention to openness and-low tech access, in order to avoid a top-down approach – because this is not what TGHN is about! The websites offer access to high-quality guidance, all free: protocols, very popular e-learning courses in a new training centre, they are often donated by institutions and adapted for TGHN), process maps, a so called site-finder application to link up research sites and projects, and much more. All material is peer-reviewed to ensure quality standards. TGHN aims to build global 'communities of practice' by providing a neutral, friendly space that allows everyone in research to connect. At the same time, we do rely on people contributing and sharing their knowledge, opinions, materials and tools.

TGHN is very much focused on sharing methods and we believe that open access is very important, specifically within the NTD context: There are much fewer large initiatives and funding opportunities specifically dedicated to these. Sharing of methods and data would ensure that efforts are coordinated instead of merely replicated. Unfortunately, sharing data on an open access basis has challenges – an argument that is often brought up is that, after all, it's a world where specific research funding is tied to generating and publishing data, as fast as possible. This is why we put the primary focus of the Global Health Network on sharing methods, and more and more often data sharing does come along at a later stage and within a specific setting, if an atmosphere of trust and collaboration has been established between specific persons or groups.

Working within the Global Health Network is fascinating, and seeing a 'sister initiative' like GAHI makes me think that this is definitely the way to go forward for research!

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