Using data to improve children’s lives

From assessing children’s access to health centres in Uganda to understanding adolescents’ use of social media in Kazakhstan, the Data for Children Collaborative employs data for all sorts of purposes.

However, the ultimate goal is always the same – to improve children’s lives.

Director, Alex Hutchison, said: “We’re a specialist unit within the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI) and our model is unique. We’re an engine or service that helps get challenges well understood and defined then brings together the expertise and data to deliver projects in a trusted way. We’ve developed a responsible innovation framework and levels of control that help make sure we do the right thing in the right way for the right reason.”

The Collaborative started as a partnership between UNICEF, the Scottish Government and the University of Edinburgh. It received a contribution of £1.5 million through the Scottish Funding Council, with the DDI programme matching that figure.

The institutions’ shared vision and mission was to use data and data science to help children. UNICEF advocates for young people and delivers programmes across the world. It recognised that the University, with its knowledge in informatics, supercomputing centre at EPCC and other areas of expertise, could help. Equally important, it could provide a safe place to do transdisciplinary work and cooperate with other institutions.

Alex said: “DDI funding gave us room to determine our marketplace and what we needed our organisation to be. As well as demonstrating that the UK is a safe place to do data and Edinburgh can be the capital for data in Europe, our focus is on responsible innovation and the application of data ethics in a way that others can learn from.”


Extensive scope

Its area of activity, and data scope, is extensive. Over and above the projects in Uganda and Kazakhstan, the Collaborative has explored the possibility of using machine learning algorithms to understand population estimation in rural Mozambique and urban Guinea and examined data to understand young people’s access to sport in Scotland during and after COVID-19.

“We use everything from Earth observation to household surveys, and lived experience interviews,” added Alex. “In short, we draw on any information that can be gathered, mined and drilled into.”

In addition to commissions from UNICEF, the Collaborative is working with organisations in England on a children’s outcomes framework, and with the Jameel Observatory at the University on a project concerning food security in the Horn of Africa.

It has delivered research and helped build teams to seek funding on specific topics. Alex said: “Crucially, as a spin out involved in data driven innovation, we’ve found you must have an engine to deliver tangible outcomes in a structured and systematic way.

“For our part, we’re excited about our current portfolio of projects, which builds on our knowledge base of outputs and outcomes. We’re inspiring other DDI and university projects on how transferable skills can be used in the context of ‘data for good’, and we’re keen to see how we can help EFI develop and grow.”


Data for Children Collaborative is one of many projects helped by six new data-driven innovation hubs at the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University, as part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.


Children in a Ugandan classroom raise their hands to speak, while their teacher writes on the chalkboard

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