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Moving beyond the global north

Why we chose South Africa to run the Wellcome Data Prize in Mental Health.

By Romana Khan
Published 12 May 2022

Street scene from Cape Town. Photo by Leo Moko.

A significant amount of mental health research relies on datasets from populations in Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) contexts. That must change if we’re to understand the best approaches for different people, in different regions and in different settings globally, as mental health is hugely influenced by a tangle of biological, socio-economic and psychological factors.

Finding the best approaches

In April, applications opened for the Wellcome Data Prize in Mental Health. A total of £1.4 million will be awarded across three phases, with the top £500,000 to be shared between three winning teams to perform research using existing datasets and develop a tool to enable further mental health research. Multi-disciplinary teams led from South Africa and the UK will research anxiety and depression in young people and help answer the question “What works for whom, in what contexts and why?”

There are lots of South African researchers and data scientists doing great work in this space, and we want to hear from them about how this data could be used to really make a difference to youth anxiety and depression.

After completing the international scoping phase we decided to run the prize in South Africa because it offers the right resources, rich longitudinal datasets and appetite for mental health research to benefit from new digital approaches.

Growing the mental health research community

Even when data has been collected in a non-WEIRD context, researchers from these areas often have to manage with scarcer resources and technical infrastructure. This imbalance results in Western researchers using data collected in low-resource settings in their own publications, which in turn attracts further resources towards themselves. This is often referred to as data colonialism. To help prevent this, teams applying to the prize must be led by someone from where the datasets have been collected (South Africa or the UK) ensuring South African researchers are leading the use of South African data.

“There are lots of South African researchers and data scientists doing great work in this space, and we want to hear from them about how this data could be used to really make a difference to youth anxiety and depression”, says Ekin Bolukbasi, Data Prize Manager at the Wellcome Trust. “We’re interested in seeing what insights they uncover and what digital tools they develop.”

In previous data reuse initiatives researchers were also repurposing data without the knowledge of the data holders. To avoid this, the prize has been designed to engage data holders in the process and embed transparency throughout.

As Nick Turner, Manager and Design Lead at Social Finance puts it: “Keeping research transparent and open to the local institutions that had a hand in creating the data tackles both extractive research practices and the credibility of the rationality used to justify those practices.”

As part of the community building there will be regular show and tells throughout so data holders know exactly how data they collected is being used, and prize teams will be required to share their work in line with open science principles. We also hope the community will connect data holders, researchers and data scientists beyond the prize.

Involving a broader range of people

The Wellcome Trust aims to ensure that “the broadest possible range of people contribute to, and benefit from, science’s potential to change the world”.

Throughout the design of the prize we have made sure South African researchers, and lived experience expertise is included in our advisory board, selection panel, youth advisory network and focus groups. This helps ensure we are valuing different types of expertise and gain wider context of the mental health landscape which is influenced by policy, apartheid, and the availability of mental health services amongst other socio-economic factors.

If you are interested in getting involved:

  • Read all the details on the Wellcome website: including the eligibility criteria, how to apply and details about what data is available
  • Sign up to the Social Finance mailing list: to keep up to date with upcoming events and new information about the prize
  • Join the Slack channel: where individuals interested in the prize can engage with others to form teams
  • Make sure you apply before the deadline on 5 June 2022

If you have questions email dataprize@socialfinance.org.uk.

 

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