In a small building behind a county health facility, each stack of birth registration papers was at least a meter high. They were piled neatly and with care in a bathroom that hadn’t been used in years. The social welfare officer pulled out the smart phone on which, every night, he painstakingly entered data from the forms into an electronic database. Piece by piece, as he chipped away at the backlog of registrations, this civil servant was turning data about children into data for children.
Every birth registration that made it into the database was another child counted. Another girl who would be allowed to appear on school rolls in a few years. Another boy who would be eligible to vote when he is old enough. The care that this officer showed as he entered each name and birthdate reflected what he knew well – data have the power to dramatically shape children’s futures.
From the basic details of vital registration to rigorous household surveys to the most sophisticated real-time monitoring tools, all forms of data have the potential to influence the decisions that impact children’s lives. As the potential for leveraging diverse data sources expands, our responsibility to make the best possible use of those data becomes all the more pressing.
This urgency is why we are launching the first Data for Children Forum this week – a joint venture between three member states (Kenya, Mexico and the United States), the UN Statistics Division and UNICEF. We’ll be talking with experts and amongst ourselves about what works and what needs to change in the realm of data collection, analysis and use for children. We will dig into the implications of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for child-related data. Most importantly, the conversation won’t end here. It will continue over the course of the next six months, as we draw new plans for making UNICEF’s data work reflect the current – and the future – data landscape.
We won’t be starting our discussion of data for children from a blank slate – we have a wealth of experience on which to draw. Governments around the world have made great leaps in the quality and quantity of data they collect. Other partners have invested in new and different ways of gathering and using data.
We also, of course, have UNICEF’s own experience. For 20 years, we have supported governments in collecting, analysing, and using high-quality household survey data through Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS). We’ve recently passed the million-user mark with U-Report, an innovative and inexpensive way to bring new information and voices into the realm of data for children. Through our support to service delivery systems, we have the potential to harness and utilise vast amounts of real-time data for decision-making.
The biggest challenges we face as we launch this process will not be related to a lack of data. Our most substantial obstacles will be sifting through all the potential sources of information and finding ways to make many types of data sync up and talk to each other. We know this will require us to do our work in new ways – to coordinate and cooperate better. We know it will require new ways of thinking about data and about decision-making. We know it will rely on the collective wisdom of UNICEF staff and partners from all over the world – and we couldn’t be more excited about those challenges.
We hope you’ll join us for the forum, which will be live streamed here, and that you’ll join the conversation on social media with #data2015. We look forward to continuing this dialogue as we – and you! – blog about the process over the coming months.
The data revolution that is already underway, holds so much potential for children. We look forward to charting UNICEF’s course through it along with you.
Jeff O’Malley is the Director of UNICEF’s Division of Data, Research, and Policy.