A participatory approach to the design of a child-health community-based information system for the care of vulnerable children
The existing District Health Information System in South Africa can be described as a facility based Information System, focusing on the clinics and hospitals and not on the community. Consequently, only those who access health services through these facilities are included in the system. Many children do not have access to basic health and social services and consequently, are denied their right to good health. Additionally, they are excluded from the routine Health Information System. Policy and resource decisions made by the District Managers, based on the current health facility information, reinforces the exclusion of these already marginalised children. The premise behind this research is that vulnerability of children can be tackled using two interconnected strategies. The first is through the creation of awareness of the situation of children and the second through mobilising the commitment and action of government and society to address this situation. These strategies can be supported by designing an Information System for action; an Information System that can be used to advocate and influence decisions and policies for the rights of these children; an Information System that includes all children. An interpretive participatory action research approach, using a case study in a rural municipality in South Africa, was adopted for the study of a child-health Community-Based Information System. The context in which the community is placed, as well as the structures which are embedded in it, was examined using Structuration Theory. This theory also influenced the design of the Information System. As the aim of the research is to change the Information System to include vulnerable children, a Critical Social Theoretical and longitudinal perspective was adopted. In particular, concepts from Habermas, such as the creation of a public sphere and the ’Ideal Speech Situation’, informed the methodology chosen and were used to analyse the research undertaken. Based on the research conducted in this municipality, four main changes to the Health Information System were made. These were: • determination of the community’s own indicators; • changes in data collection forms; • creation of forums for analysis and reflection, and; • changes in the information flows for improved feedback. Other practical contributions of the research are the development of local capacities in data collection and analysis, the development of practical guidelines on the design of a child-health Community-Based Information System, and the development of strategies for enabling participation and communication. In line with the action research approach adopted, and the desire to link theory and practice, the research also contributed on a theoretical level. These contributions include extending the use of Structuration Theory, in conjunction with Habermas’ Critical Social Theory, to the empirical context of South Africa; addressing the gap of Community-Based Information Systems in Information System design; extending the debate on participation and communication in Information Systems to ’developing’ countries, and developing generalisations from a qualitative case study.