Data is central to our work for children – as many stories on this blog illustrate:
- Accounting for the growing number of children orphaned by Ebola in the middle of Guinea’s dense rain-forest helps bring them the care and support they desperately need.
- The field of early childhood development is being redesigned thanks to recent evidence from neuroscience demonstrating how nature and nurture are inextricably linked during the early development of the human brain.
- New data shows that child mortality rates are falling faster than ever in part due to affordable, evidence-based interventions against the main infectious diseases. I could go on…
Investments in data on children were bolstered a couple of decades ago by the World Summit for Children where world leaders committed to “establish appropriate mechanisms for the regular and timely collection, analysis and publication of data required to monitor relevant social indicators relating to the well-being of children”. And, later on, by the Millennium Development Goals.
While data may help save the lives of many, others may not be aware that their interaction with technology is creating profiles that could impact their future
Advancements since then have been significant. In 1990, 29 low- and middle-income countries had trend data on child malnutrition. Today 107 do, largely thanks to data collected via increasingly sophisticated household surveys.
More recently, the digital age ushered forth an era when the amount of data is rising exponentially; new data analytics allow us to answer different types of questions than was previously possible; and new technologies helps us do some of what we do, faster and cheaper.
Mobile data helped report 18 million births in Nigeria in 2011-12, and bring down the time to trace and reunify disaster-affected families in Uganda from weeks to hours. SMS surveys have helped reduce malaria medicine stock-outs by 80% in Uganda and young people are engaging in shaping decision making on HIV/AIDS in Zambia.
The recently coined “data revolution” refers to the potential of this ever-expanding and evolving data ecosystem to improve human well-being. These opportunities, however, will not automatically translate into something positive for all. To be sure, the data revolution also raises fundamental rights issues related, for instance, to having an identity and being accounted for, privacy, legitimate use, ownership, participation, and equity and non-discrimination.
These, in turn, question the suitability of our current data policies and governance structures.
People’s well-being should be at the heart of how these policies evolve. And particular attention should be given to children and youth because many risks affect them more specifically. Across the world, children and youth are growing up in a digital world, and data about them will be tracked for much of their lives. While data may help save the lives of many, others may not be aware that their interaction with technology is creating profiles that could impact their future.
A few days ago, I participated in a meeting of experts asked to prepare a report on the data revolution for the UN Secretary-General. During two days, specialists from the statistics, big data, open data, academia and the UN worlds brainstormed on the definition of the “data revolution” and its role to fill in persisting data gaps, to enhance accountability, to track progress towards sustainable development and to empower people.
While participants brought different perspectives to the table, all acknowledged the role of data as a key driver of sustainable development. Consultations held on the second day put the spotlight on the role of data for fostering openness and inclusion and unpacked the opportunities and challenges associated with big data.
These consultations continue online. You can join the conversation and help design a data revolution that works for the benefits of today’s children and of future generations.
Katell Le Goulven is the Chief of Policy Planning at UNICEF Headquarters in New York.