Real-time data for real-world impact: UNICEF's vision for a brighter future for children

17 March, 2023 By Mark Hereward, Chief Data Officer, UNICEF
Hundreds of displaced and local children are celebrating the upcoming new year at Kharkiv’s Spilno Child Spot, run by UNICEF and partners, Ukraine 2022. ©UNICEF/UN0760153/Pashkina

As someone who led the very first round of implementation of UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) nearly thirty years ago, I have been convinced of the critical role that data collection and utilization has played in addressing the needs of the world’s children. Over the years, this conviction in the importance of data has only grown stronger. Today’s policymakers face a fantastic opportunity which is also a daunting challenge: managing, analyzing, and drawing meaningful insights from the massive amounts of data generated each day. Approaching these new data sources responsibly (making sure we uphold children’s rights in the whole process) and dealing with the proliferation of misinformation in the post-truth era are the mountain we are called to climb. 

MICS has now become the largest source of reliable statistical data and globally comparable information about children and women, with surveys covering a total of 118 countries. These data, combined with other sources ranging from satellite imagery to geospatial analysis, generated through cutting-edge technologies, are indispensable to stakeholders grappling with complex and intersecting challenges such as climate change and pandemics. These data enable us to be flexible, agile, and action-oriented. In Ukraine, for example, UNICEF’s data capabilities have been instrumental in allowing almost 5 million people to access healthcare, with supplies dispatched to even war-affected areas, and providing education to over 1 million refugee children. 

What’s more, UNICEF is taking part in this era of data innovation while creating a global culture of responsible data use and best governance practices. We envision a future in which the private sector’s real-time data serve as a crucial support to our humanitarian action. By leveraging this data, UNICEF can gain a better understanding of the needs of vulnerable populations and make wiser decisions about how to invest its resources to respond to disasters, epidemics, and other global challenges. 

These partnerships have been extremely successful. We have partnered with IBM and Google Amadeus to provide technology, resources, and expertise to fight the spread of the Zika virus, including supercomputing services and weather data. We have worked with Facebook on the Disaster Maps initiative, which uses aggregated, de-identified data to fill information gaps during sudden onset disasters. And more recently, we launched the UNICEF Frontier Data Network, which brings together various stakeholders such as government agencies, private sector, academia, and data collaboratives to advance sustainable global data science in the field. The establishment of regional and national Frontier Data Nodes has made use of big data more equitable by partnering global data science with local talent. A notable success of this initiative is the collection of real-time anonymized metadata, such as mobile phone usage, to gain insights into human activity. 

The integration of big data will be essential for the successful implementation of UNICEF’s future programming. As we strive towards a brighter future for all children, we recognize that we cannot do it alone. We call on the private sector to join us in our mission to leverage technology and innovation to promote children’s rights and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We would like to invite governments, researchers, and data experts to join us and take advantage of technology and innovation to promote children’s rights and strive for the achievement of the SDGs for children worldwide. By collaborating with UNICEF, you can contribute to generating high-quality, agile, and real-world data that will be crucial for addressing complex and intersecting issues such as climate change and pandemics. Get in touch if you’d like to explore this opportunity to make a positive impact and ensure that every child has the opportunity to thrive.

Mark Hereward

Chief Data Officer, Associate Director

Division of Data, Analysis, Planning and Monitoring, UNICEF