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How do you find out how many victims there are of female genital mutilation or use technology? Unicef UK's chief advises on how to map out the needs of the world's children

Globally in 2012, about 40% of all babies born were not registered at birth – meaning they do not officially exist. Every child deserves the right to be counted and data is one of the most powerful tools we have to save children's lives, build their futures and influence social change.

Data has made it possible to save and improve the lives of millions of children, by revealing where improvements need to be made. Some 90 million children who would have died before reaching the age of five if child mortality rates had stuck at their 1990 level have, instead, lived. This is because of progress in delivering immunisations, health, and water and sanitation services to some of the most disadvantaged and hardest to reach children – identified through good solid data.

Unicef's 'The state of the world's children 2014 in numbers' is created on the basis of data as a tool to influence and be used by decision makers, identify gaps and show where we should target our resources and energies. There are some key issues to bear in mind when gathering data.

Identify the gaps

In the mid-1990s, Unicef realised there were huge gaps in the availability of data. In an effort to fill these crucial data gaps, we developed the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (Mics) methodology that enabled governments to collect information on children where regular monitoring information systems often fell short.

Mics is now the largest source of statistical information on children and we have an enormous amount of data at our fingertips. These data have enabled us to look at trends over time, compare countries, and look beyond the national averages to compare differences between the poorest and richest, different regions, as well as differences between boys and girls.

The surveys have been designed to provide a manageable framework with which to monitor progress towards global targets such as the millennium development goals.

Embrace technology

Innovations in technology are presenting fresh ways to gather evidence and we are witnessing an explosion of new methods and data visualisation tools. We need to harness the potential of these new technologies to capture and analyse data and use them to disseminate information more effectively and to trigger action.

Mobile phone technologies for instance, allow a much quicker response to gathering data on disease outbreaks. In the Philippines in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan SMS technology was used to determine the children most in need of emergency support.

Acknowledge the challenges

Despite advances in technology, we still face many challenges to producing high quality, reliable and comparable data. The sensitive nature of some issues – violence against children, for instance, or such harmful traditional practices as female genital mutilation – complicates data collection. Great care must be taken to ensure the safety of the children who are the subjects of or participants in research.

Access to some regions, such as those affected by conflict, can also present challenges. If humanitarian organisations are denied access to provide life-saving aid then collecting data and evidence in that region will also be dramatically affected.

Need for objectivity and sensitivity

Gathering data on issues as complex as female genital mutilation, for instance, require close understanding, sensitivity and collaboration with communities. We can never make assumptions and the data collection needs to be very carefully managed.

We must focus on the children who are left behind, those living on the street, trafficked children, children in institutions, children with disabilities both physical and mental, and children who are displaced by natural disasters or civil strife.

Give children a voice

Children are the experts on their own lives. They can contribute valuable knowledge to validate and enrich the evidence base – if only they have a chance to be heard.

Young people in low-income communities of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for example, have used mobile phones loaded with a Geographic information system application to take geotagged photos documenting problems in their neighbourhood. Their vigilance has led to the removal of piled-up rubbish and the repair of a bridge, improving the lives of their entire community.

Data has made it possible to find out how far we've come and how far we still need to go in order to reach every child in need. We must not be complacent. We need to continue to challenge the world to use data and evidence to inspire creative thinking and find innovative solutions to the most pressing issues affecting children today. Only then will we be able to ensure the rights of every child.

David Bull is executive director of Unicef UK. Follow @UNICEF on Twitter

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David Bull, Guardian Professional, Thursday 27 February 2014 06.03 EST