Introduction to Flow Interoperability
The USAID-funded Flow Interoperability Initiative seeks to improve the connectivity, reusability, and interoperability of digital communication systems used in development and humanitarian response. Convened in response to challenges observed in the 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Initiative has supported the creation of a pair of standards that enable interoperability between digital communication systems, operating over diverse channels: interactive phone (voice) calls, SMS chatbots, USSD services, social messaging chatbots, and offline mobile-based data collection systems.
Digital data collection and mobile communication are quickly becoming the norm in health projects and service delivery, leading to more reliable data, broader access to isolated populations, and faster decision making. Software tools based on the “Flow” paradigm are poised to become one of the most effective ways for non-technical health implementers to design and run their own services for (a) data collection and (b) direct-to-beneficiary communication.
Despite the potential of Flow-based tools, interoperability can present key challenges that limit impact, especially in crisis-like situations. First, exchanging data between platforms is ad-hoc, developed on a platform-to-platform basis, using specialized software adapters each time. This limits the ability to share data between platforms; it locks datasets into vendor platforms, and it delays the rapid connection and aggregation of data from multiple systems for fast decision-making. For example, at the height of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, instead of spending time using data for decisions on how to deploy resources, technicians were spending time figuring out how to get data to move from one data collection platform to another visualization and analysis platform. A second challenge is that content developed in one country or for one platform cannot be published for use in other countries, or used on other platforms. This is significant also because of the lengthy challenge of connecting Flow platforms to local mobile network operator (MNO) networks; it can be advantageous in a crisis to quickly use a compatible platform that is already connected. The goals of the Flow Interoperability project are even more important today in the current global context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where health organizations have an urgent need to communicate educational information to large populations, train healthcare workers, gather data and feedback from clinics and health workers, and consolidate data for decision making, all while working as remotely as possible. This urgent need extends outside the health sector as well, where all organizations with field forces need to determine how to continue delivering service and communicating with workers on a remote basis.
The ultimate benefits of the Initiative for data collection will be to enable
pre-established data exchange between platforms, analysis tools, and dashboards, leading to
faster data exchange in epidemics, crises, and disasters, and finally
improved data-driven decision-making in health and other sectors.
The ultimate benefits in direct-to-beneficiary communication will be to
unlock the open sharing of flow content in a cross-platform way, leading to
increased availability of flow content,
rapid reuse and portability of telecommunications agreements and integrations,
increased distribution of flow content, and finally
higher reach of health & educational content to isolated populations.
To increase uptake and impact from digital data collection and mobile communication, the Initiative created a set of standards and a supporting ecosystem for Flow Interoperability (FI) across existing and future software platforms. It has created two specifications: one for the exchange of interactive content definitions that run over mobile channels (“Flow Definitions”, FD), and one for the exchange of data/results generated as humans interact with these services (“Flow Results”, FR). More information and the full text of the standards is provided on the Initiative website: http://flowinterop.org/#standards
How the Flow Interoperability Initiative works
The Initiative works to expand interoperability in three ways:
Standards: Creation of an open specification for Flow Interoperability
Community Creation: “Seeding” of an ecosystem of existing software platforms that support Flow Interoperability
Supporting Tools: Creation of supporting tools and frameworks to incentivize adoption of Flow Interoperability in future software tools
The Initiative has completed the development two open standards under the first goal, and a set of supporting open-source software packages to assist in the usage of the standards under Goal #3. Support for the standards has been developed by initial project partners, including Ona (data platform and Canopy data system), InSTEDD (Surveda survey platform), Viamo (communications platform), UNICEF U-Report, and mHero. In support of Goal #2, the Initiative is now seeking applications for matching funding from software vendors and/or development organizations that would (a) expand the ecosystem of interoperable systems, or (b) pilot and learn from implementation of the standards to bring value to operating projects in the next 12 - 18 months.