Scotland and UNICEF: a data-driven approach to improve outcomes for children

Scotland has a unique collaboration with UNICEF to improve the mental health and wellbeing of children across the globe – from tackling childhood obesity to providing access to health services. At its heart is Scotland’s expertise in data science and the ethical use of data as Alex Hutchison, director of the Data for Children Collaborative, explains.

It was a meeting in New York with UNICEF, the United Nations programme dedicated to children’s welfare, that led to the creation of the Data for Children Collaborative.

The initiative harnesses Scotland’s data expertise to improve the lives of children around the world, and currently has projects in countries including Mozambique, Uganda, Jamaica and the Ivory Coast.

The Data Lab, Scotland's innovation centre for data and artificial intelligence is home to the collaborative partnership between UNICEF, the Scottish Government and the University of Edinburgh’s Data Driven Innovation Programme.

“UNICEF said they were really keen to increase their work with data, but the costs of data scientists in New York are prohibitive,” explains Alex Hutchison, director of the Data for Children Collaborative.

“So, The Data Lab seized that opportunity and said: Scotland's got the talent to help. We've got a pipeline of people doing data science Masters and we've got the infrastructure.”

Ethical data you can trust

“Trust in how Scotland uses and respects data was key to the pitch that went to UNICEF,” Alex says.

The Collaborative uses a seven-step ‘responsible innovation’ framework to ensure its projects are designed and deployed safely and ethically, with children’s rights and interests in mind.

“It’s about having trust in the way that data or information is being told as a story,” Alex explains.

"I like to think that Scotland's unique selling point is a really true respect for individuals, for groups and society in terms of data, data protection, human rights and child rights. And that respect agenda is at the forefront of how we are developing our data ecosystem."

Alex Hutchison, director of the Data for Children Collaborative

Alex Hutchison Director of the Data For Children Collaborative

The Scottish Government’s backing and funding of the partnership is key to this approach.

“The Scottish Government is really keen that Scotland's talents and resources can have an impact elsewhere,” Alex says. “Scotland wants to play a part as a global citizen – and be able to help Mozambique with its vaccination programs or to help Cote d'Ivoire with its adolescents still having high percentages of HIV.”

Data-driven insights to improve childhood nutrition

Scotland has a target to halve cases of childhood obesity by 2030, and better methods of regular monitoring and assessment will be vital in achieving this goal. This Collaborative project is looking to better understand what children are eating and what influences these decisions. Scotland has an opportunity to support other countries in the global challenge to reduce obesity rates, by sharing the learning from evidence-based data analyses.

UNICEF Data For Children Collaborative

Tackling childhood poverty in Uganda

In Uganda, the Collaborative is looking at how child poverty affects a child’s physical access to services like health clinics and schools.

“We're looking at routes to health centres and schools, but using satellite imagery to understand how hard or easy it is to get across a marsh, along a tarmac road or across a river,” Alex explains.

Supporting vaccination programmes in Mozambique

In Mozambique, satellite data of buildings is also being used to help roll out vaccination programmes against Covid-19 and other diseases, by mapping how populations are dispersed.

“To do a vaccination program really well, you need to know where people are and how many people there are,” Alex says. “Census information and administrative data just doesn't give us that information on a granular level, particularly in rural and semi-urban areas of sub Saharan Africa.”

Improving adolescent mental health in Jamaica

In Jamaica, the Collaborative is running a mental health project using data science to understand how adolescent boys and girls are using different online platforms. The aim is to then use these platforms to help funnel information and advice that promotes positive mental health.

Researching Covid-19 impacts on children

Projects in Scotland include creating a central catalogue of data on the socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19 on children in Scotland, to help other researchers with their work.

Another pandemic-related project involves using artificial intelligence to track and help debunk rumours and myths around Covid-19. This deploys chatbot technology using conversational artificial intelligence.

Scotland’s supportive data infrastructure

Scotland’s world-class data infrastructure includes the University of Edinburgh’s supercomputing centre – EPCC – formerly the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre. This is home to ARCHER, the UK's largest supercomputing facility, and other UK national supercomputing services.

“EPCC has some great examples of public sector data, particularly NHS data, and also compelling examples of how that data is governed and controlled,” Alex says.

Sustainable public health outcomes

Nutrition, population, poverty, climate change and the other themes of the Data for Children Collaborative are linked back to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

These were adopted by the UN’s 193 member states in 2015 and include ending poverty, inequality, hunger and combatting climate change by 2030.

All the Data for Children Collaborative projects are run by a central team of four, including three team members at The Data Lab and a UNICEF project manager based in Bogota, Colombia.

“We have at least six key delivery people for each project, and then an infinite number of stakeholders we engage with,” Alex explains. “It's all about the adoption and sustainability of any outputs that we create, and also making sure we're not duplicating work that already exists."

“I think what most excites me most about this project is working with hugely diverse groups of people – but who all have a common purpose. That’s a really heart-warming role to be in.”

Alex Hutchison, director of the Data for Children Collaborative

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