Working together to count the uncounted

UNICEF’s Mark Hereward explains how the right partnerships and innovation are key to ‘filling gaps’ in childrens data, delivering fresh insights, so that the invisible can be made visible


Sugarmaa was born on a cold February day in Mongolia’s Alag-Erdene area in a health centre near the family home. She was a healthy infant, thanks to the midwife who visited her mother during pregnancy and taught her about how to care for a baby in the harsh conditions of Mongolia’s northernmost province. At the health centre, measures that promote breastfeeding and other vital practices for newborn health, nutrition and survival have been put in place through UNICEF support. Now, newborn mortality rates in the area are decreasing significantly, from 15.4 deaths in 2014 per 1,000 live births to 13 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2017.


Behind each number
Sugarmaa is one of these numbers, her story one of life and a mother’s dreams of a bright future. Data like these count the uncounted and shed light on the invisible. UNICEF maintains a world-class database on children around the world, accessed by one million people inside and outside government, in every country and territory. We know and rely on traditional statistical techniques as the backbone of knowledge to collect, analyse and compile these data, but can we use new data sources and techniques to “fill in the gaps”? Can we measure the unmeasurable? That is our dream – to have more “real-time”, more geographically detailed, more usable statistics to reach more children like Sugarmaa. Because behind each of these numbers is the story of a child.

When harnessing the data revolution for children, we’ll have to think outside of the box to use new data sources and techniques. It won’t be easy, and only by bringing together substantive experts, traditional statisticians and data scientists, can we do it.


Working together to fill the gaps
With the University of Edinburgh and The Data Lab, as leading centres for data science, and with Edinburgh’s amazing computing power, but most importantly, with their entrepreneurial spirit and innovative mindset, we expect to be able to find new insights that will make our (and Governments’) programming better targeted and better monitored, so programmes for children will be much more successful.

The next phase of our challenge is to narrow down the possible research questions to ones which are big enough to make a difference without being so vague that we can’t address them. And to find the right data partnerships to enable the analysis to come to fruition. We have come a long way, and we look forward to finding great new solutions soon.


Mark Hereward is Associate Director, Data & Analytics, Division of Data, Research & Policy, UNICEF

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