How Unicef is working to improve children's health through data

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If “doing data right” is the foundation stone of modern-day information handling, is building on that foundation “using data well”?

One project trying to do this is the Data for Children Collaborative with Unicef [the United Nations Children’s Fund], a partnership between Unicef, the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Government.

David Lee spoke to Alex Hutchison, delivery director for the project, to ask how the collaborative group hopes to use data to identify interventions which can help the lives of children, in Scotland and beyond, with an initial focus on the problem of childhood obesity.

What stage is the project at?

We are in the set-up and initiation phase – establishing governance, working on branding and communications and developing working groups for the initial childhood issues that the partners want to focus on. Next month, we are gathering subject matter experts across a range of topics.

Where is the funding coming from?

The initial three-year project funding is provided by the Data-Driven Innovation initiative [part of the City Region Deal] and the Scottish Government, through the Scottish Funding Council. We hope that this will be maintained after the three years through philanthropic support. The project needs a long shelf-life.

What type of childhood issue might you focus on?

We have a good data set in Scotland for childhood obesity and can use it as a case study, with a view to replicating that in other countries. In Scotland, we have height and weight data from birth, six weeks and when the child reaches primary school age, but can we identify other data and use that to help identify where interventions should come in?

Using existing health data sets plus X – perhaps retail data, locations of fast food restaurants and behavioural science data – we hope to identify critical intervention points. We are currently brain-storming this; can we link this additional data with data on areas of the greatest deprivation and height and weight data?

It’s about linkages between different data sets. There is lots of analysis of health data, and patterns within it, but no-one is linking it to private sector data.

We are looking at bringing in other data sets around food and nutrition. We can pull that in and compare it and link it with hard information on health data to offer a new angle on it.

How important is it to have Unicef involved in the project?

It’s really crucial. Unicef brings the credibility, network and connections - and an understanding of significant childhood issues around the world. It works in more than 190 countries and has access (and close links) to governments, which can help bring about policy change. It also has access to young people to collect information, including U-Report, a social platform created by Unicef where young people express their opinion and are positive agents of change. It has really good take-up in places like Nigeria, for example, so they can ask up to a million Nigerian teenagers what they think about a specific issue.

The strength of the Unicef brand could also help us obtain data from the private sector, which can be part of this important project to make positive and sustainable change for children.

Have you got any projects underway already?

The Data Lab innovation centre, which is hosting the collaborative, is already doing work on childhood obesity; we have an academic working in Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen who is doing an unstructured data review. Using data science and machine learning, we can do a big trawl of medical databases globally – something humans can’t do.

That gives us a starting-point about what is known globally about childhood obesity, in terms of what data sets exist. Do we have anything that records height and weight at, say, 12? We stop at five in Scotland and only have records beyond that if someone goes to hospital. We want to see if there is useful additional data elsewhere so we might be able to draw conclusions; can we draw comparisons and indicators from data that goes beyond five to ensure what we are doing is well-informed?

How challenging is it to get hold of the data you need for the project?

There is some open data, but also lots of hard-to-access data, which requires harder negotiations. Any access to health data requires lots of approvals and procedures, which is understandable. There is a belt-and-braces approach, and how to balance that cautious approach with the ability to use data sets to draw important conclusions is still evolving.

Access to private sector retail data is a different problem. It’s a chicken and egg scenario – you need to know what you want, but you don’t know exactly what’s out there.

What’s the long-term objective?

We would like to inform policy with robust evidence showing change needs to be made in a particular area nationally and globally to combat childhood obesity. We want to ensure governments feel the data gives them more drive and impetus behind changes they would like to make – for instance something like a sugar tax that involves implementing changes involving retailers.

What would success look like?

In the short-term, it’s about proving the three bodies can work together in partnership, to show this is not just a university project, a Unicef project or a Scottish Government project. We need to show synergies and create something bigger than the sum of the parts.

In the medium and long term, we want to show real impact on children’s lives around the world by addressing some of the greatest challenges they are facing. For example with nutrition, if we find a correlation that proves, using the same example, that the sugar tax is beneficial and might impact on buying habits and obesity levels, we might be able to roll that out through policy-making across several different countries. If that’s phase one, then we would want to see a real and positive impact on childhood obesity levels in phase two.

Likewise, could we extend that to look at malnutrition, something that affects over 40 million children under the age of five.

That would be success.