Lessons from data can help reduce impact of climate crisis on youngsters

An eye-catching and worrying report at Cop26 revealed that an estimated one billion children are
at “extremely high risk” of suffering the negative impacts of the climate crisis. Flooding, disease, water and air pollution, cyclones and heatwaves were all identified as critical threats in Unicef’s Children’s Climate Risk Index.

The index was created from wide-ranging and complex global datasets, using scientific and data expertise from Scotland which could be adapted to improve children’s lives from Edinburgh to Eritrea, and from Glasgow to Ghana.

One organisation involved in developing the index was the Data for Children Collaborative, a partnership between Unicef, the Scottish Government and the University of Edinburgh’s Futures Institute.

The Collaborative, funded by Scottish Government and the Edinburgh-based Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative, is at the heart of a series of challenge projects – designed to harness large and complex datasets in a structured way to improve the lives and opportunities of children locally, nationally and globally.

The DDI initiative was created as part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. Edinburgh Futures Institute is a key delivery hub for the DDI. It is nurturing a growing cluster of work,
research and innovation to improve the lives of children and young people, using data and collaborative
project building and delivery.

One of the Collaborative’s projects is supporting “The Promise”, the Scottish Government’s flagship
policy, which pledges that care-experienced people will grow up “loved, safe and respected, able to realise their full potential”.

Alex Hutchison, director of the Data for Children Collaborative, explains: “We are helping to map all
the data in Scotland relating directly or indirectly to children and families – understanding the complexity of doing that across all kinds of agencies, and looking at the linkages. But it’s not primarily about the data – it’s about how that affects children, and understanding what matters to them.”

Another Scotland-based project is the Northern Alliance, aimed to help understand more about child
poverty in North and North-east Scotland. “Eight local authorities have asked us how that data can
inform their understanding of rural and urban poverty,” says Hutchison.

“It’s about providing more detailed information about real-life community situations – looking at the datasets and thinking how they are pieced together, how they can help children realise their potential.”

Hutchison says how the data is linked together has important potential to inform public policy in Scotland and much further afield.

“It’s about looking at what we call ‘data landscapes’. We are building tools, models and methodologies to better understand the datasets within those landscapes and how to best use them. The models are replicable for any data landscape that needs to be mapped – so if we do work in Scotland, that could be used more locally at the city region level, or globally.”

As an example, Hutchison says, another country might be interested in mapping children and families data, or data about health or education – and although their data will be different, they can still use the same models and principles to map it to draw meaningful conclusions about children. In turn, those conclusions can help inform public policy.

It is, she admits, a hugely complicated area. How can you possibly map a wide range of climate hazards alongside data relating to the vulnerability of children?

“We have to concentrate on getting the process right if the conclusions are to be meaningful,” Hutchison says. If you have multiple datasets on health, do you put 10 of them in, but no datasets relating to education? You don’t want to influence the results of the data analysis in any way – so it’s about analysing how the datasets you put in might influence what comes out. That’s not always easy but if we can learn to do it better, that can be used for any data landscape.”

Alongside the how, Hutchison stresses that the success of the Collaborative’s projects has to be based on asking why.

“We want to know why this challenge is important to whoever is bringing it forward. What do they want to get out of it? Let’s take The Promise or the Northern Alliance projects – how can the data have positive impacts for care-experienced children, or give a better understanding of child poverty in northern Scotland?”

So what next for the Collaborative? Hutchison says it is working hard to develop existing projects, and create new ones, through identifying both research funding and philanthropic support.

“We want to be a figurehead for the Edinburgh Futures Institute, solving real-world problems and making people’s lives better. Through the DDI initiative, we want to continue to be a great example of data-driven innovation, to support Edinburgh’s efforts to be the Data Capital of Europe. We want to show how to do data better, how to make a positive difference; we are leading the charge.”

So how might the work on the Children’s Climate Risk Index – and the interest it attracted at Cop26 – begin to make a genuine difference to children across the globe?

“We understand that children are more physically and physiologically vulnerable to disease, air pollution or water contamination,” Hutchison explains. “It can affect their livelihoods and their development, which is what we should be really concerned about.”

But ultimately, it is about listening – to the data and to the children. The Collaborative produced a policy brief for Cop26, urging those in positions of power to recognise and listen to young people.

“Unicef events at Cop26 gave young people a voice,” says Hutchison. “They had a global audience and it’s about ensuring that those young voices are listened to and that actions follow. The Collaborative can support this through its data expertise – by doing that, we can improve the future of the world’s children. That’s our goal.”

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