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REPORT: Big Data for Small Children



Co-convened by UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education (IBE) and the Seychelles Institute of Early Childhood Development (IECD), the Second International Biennial Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), took place at the International Conference Center in Victoria, Seychelles, from 21 to 23 February 2019. Under the title “Big Data for Small Children: Monitoring Holistic Early Childhood Development,” the conference brought together over 340 representatives of governments, non-government organisations, international development agencies and international experts, from 23 countries.

This conference came two years after the First International Biennial Conference on ECCE in the Republic of Seychelles. The most prominent theme emerging from the 2017 conference was the urgency of taking practical steps for each UNESCO Member State (MS) to adopt a broad and multisectoral, holistic approach to ECCE. A holistic approach to ECCE requires defragmenting, coordinating, and systematizing the ECCE services that are the purview of several government departments, private organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Advocacy for holistic approaches that systematize ECCE services has been a consistent fixture in literature and discourse on ECCE practices, especially since UNESCO’s 2010 Moscow World Congress on ECCE. Like its 2017 predecessor, the Second International Biennial Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education directed its attention forward from advocacy towards practical strategies for building holistic and resilient ECCE systems and towards highlighting exemplars of such systems that could be emulated by other MSs.

Indeed, the most urgent practical issue MSs must surmount in building resilient and effective ECCE systems is managing immense data challenges across all ECCE system components. Data collection and management deficiencies have perennially plagued development efforts in low income countries worldwide, and ECCE efforts globally across all national income levels more generally, in all but a few country contexts. These deficiencies exacerbate the organizational fragmentation of services that remains a defining characteristic of most Member States’ ECCE. The Second Biennial Conference squarely addressed this urgent practical issue.

Emerging technologies have given rise to the term “big data” and a revolution in the field of data science. They are irrevocably transforming and disrupting the landscape of any domain that involves collecting, analyzing, and producing massive data sets, especially including ECCE and its complex data requirements. The first task of the experts who spoke to and interacted with the conference delegates was to break down these requirements as they relate to the institutional (Dr. Shirley Choppy), legal (Dr. Mmantsetsa Marope), policy (Prof. Guo Liang-Jin), programmatic (Dr. Ina Linden Furtenbach), financing (Dr. Katsuke Sakaue), and monitoring and evaluation frameworks (Dr. Sally Brinkman) of a country’s ECCE services. These frameworks are often poorly coordinated and do not add up to coherent systems in most countries, largely due to uneven, inadequate, and poorly resourced collection, sharing, and production of the big data that is necessary to improve sound operational decision-making, policy-making, and strategy development for ECCE. Yet even in the two years since the First Conference, important new practices have emerged or have become clearer in the field. Ina Linden Furtenbach, Director of the Gothenburg Preschools, gave an opening plenary prior to the framework talks that demonstrated how a long-standing culture of data reliance and data-driven decision-making in Sweden evolved and became foundational to perhaps the world’s most successful ECCE system. Later conference sessions from Dr. Linden and her colleague, Dr. Staffan Lekenstam, Director of Gothenburg’s Department of Data Management dissected the ethical, organizational, security, confidentiality, and accuracy considerations that characterize ECCE systems in Sweden and that other MSs must take on.

While ECCE in Sweden is among the most salutary in the world, delegates from many other countries also reported large strides that can be studied and replicated. Among these is the remarkable work of conference co-convener, the IECD in Seychelles, led by its Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Shirley Choppy. Under the motto of giving “every child a winning chance,” the IECD has served as both a clearinghouse and guide to separate government ministries, first in creating a collaborative rather than competitive ethos among ECCE providers, and then in organizing, collecting, producing, and sharing the data necessary for all providers to coordinate effective ECCE service. IECD shared a video that narrated ECCE functions in Seychelles. The value in this and other media that presenters shared was giving practical and hands-on guidance to the conference delegates.

These examples were plentiful, and included Singapore (Sherilyn Sia on data management in Singapore childcare centers to improve children’s safety and to increase parental engagement), Australia and Tonga (Sally Brinkman, focusing on national childhood monitoring and census taking in both countries), and Albania (Elma Tershana, focusing on the data and monitoring practices of the Observatory for Children and Youth Rights in Albania). Each illustrated different facets of successfully taking on big data challenges facing ECCE globally.

Some presentations focused on specific tools or approaches. In one of the opening plenaries, Dr. Neo Xiong from China showed how the use of augmented reality tools at the kindergarten level, coupled with intense image and data tracking, opened a new world of future possibilities for big data in early childhood education. Dr. Aniruddh Gupta, founder of Safari Kids, a network of dozens of kindergartens in four countries, showed how data across multiple sectors of early childhood care is applied in those contexts. Dr. Sally Brinkman presented the work behind creating a single value Holistic Early Childhood Index (HECDI) as a way to combine up to 20 critical monitoring indices into a composite single value. Dr. Anne-Lise Ducanda shared research findings on the perils of early childhood exposure to screens, whether smartphones, tablets, televisions, or other devices, depicting cognitive and social stunting that can result from such exposure.

Among the consistent themes of the framework discussions, presentations of exemplar systems, and specialized presentations, was the need to provide professional training and support across all stakeholder groups in big data management, to continually share and incorporate sound and successful practices, and to understand that the transition to effective big data systems in ECCE monitoring requires constant attention on decisions – that is, every step of the data organization, collection, and use was to help drive decisions to improve ECCE. Several speakers took note of the “Four Vs” of big-data, namely volume, velocity, variety, and veracity. Each of these “Vs” must be understood and coordinated across ECCE frameworks and sectors.

Conferences provide opportunities for social interaction, networking, and forming new professional relationships. This conference was no exception. Attendees repeatedly expressed appreciation for the chance to meet and learn from their colleagues and to plan future collaboration. The government of Seychelles and the IECD made gratefully received provision for meals and sparkling cultural events that not only lifted everyone’s appreciation of the island nation, but provided a rich context for the exchanges that took place outside of the actual sessions. These exchanges were consequential. They included bilateral discussions between Dr. Mmantsetsa Marope, the IBE’s Director, and countries and delegates that sought to strengthen collaboration with the IBE. These meetings involved Albania, Bahrain, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eswatini, and the host country, including a courtesy visit to the President of the Republic of Seychelles.

One vigorous supporter of IBE’s work in ECCE is Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organization based in the United Arab Emirates.  One conference session featured presentations from each of four countries (Cameroon and Rwanda, Lao PDR, and Eswatini) who are participating in ECCE system inventory and planning.  These presentations addressed the nature of data management in each respective country as they pursue ECCE system building.

The conference began with Welcoming Remarks from the Honorable Mrs. Jeane Simeon, Minister of Education and Human Resource Development and Chairperson of the Conference Organising Committee, Opening Address, from His Excellency Mr. Vincent Meriton, Vice-President of the Republic of Seychelles, and a Keynote Address from IBE Director Dr. Mmantsetsa Marope. The conference concluded with a Minister’s Roundtable from the Republics of Seychelles (Macsuzy Mondon, Designated Minister; Mrs. Jeanne Simeon, Minister of Education and Human Resource Development, and Mrs. Mitcy Larue, Minister for Family Affairs), Bahrain (Mr. Jameel Humaidan, Minister for Labour and Social Development), and Eswatini (Permanent Secretary Sibongile Mtshali), followed by Dr. Marope’s Reflections.

These opening and closing sessions of the conference were characterized by several big-picture themes, that globally we are in the midst of a data revolution that ECCE systems must vigorously engage; that there is a greater supply of commendable practices than in the past while simultaneously noting there is a need for every MS, including the most advanced, to improve current ECCE big data management and keep up with changes in data science; and that the Seychelles bienniel gathering, first held in 2011 and first internationalized in 2017, should continue its evolution in 2021 to truly global status in moving the worldwide ECCE community into greater effectiveness in building big data-driven, effective, and resilient systems.

Indeed, a Joint Framework for Action (JFA) now in development from the conference calls on signatory countries to develop and maintain sophisticated big data ECCE systems that align with best practices of ethics, confidentiality, interdependence, integrity, security, and usability in assuring the profoundly significant humane, social, and economic benefits of assuring every child’s right to holistically healthy early life experience.