Big data, ethics and children – UNICEF Connect (blog)

We are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knew yesterday, and prepare our schools for what no one knows yet – Margaret Mead

In a matter of years the recording of a child or young person’s activities within the public sphere has gone from being consequent to an act of god (or heroics) to a relatively ubiquitous phenomena, slowly conquering continents, and reflected in the statistical estimate that 1 in 3 internet users are children (over 2 billion children). In this context, how can we fathom day to day lived reality of those 1 in 3 any more than they could conceive of my own childhood where data and information was found via little multi-coloured cards in wooden library catalogues? Further, and more importantly, what is the future of those populating and being shaped by this statistic?


© UNICEF/UNI130654/VishwanathanSchool children in Udaipur, Rajasthan work on computers during a class, at the Government Upper Primary School, Tidi.

The answer to these questions are complex, and the solutions largely unknown. Like all ethical and philosophical conundrums there are frameworks that provide some guidance, but rarely specifics. The devil is in the details and the details need to be understood before we even begin to move forward.

The facts are as follows: (1) This generation of children have had their lives ‘datafied’ – their digital footprints have been captured over their entire lifespans, and will continue to be, (2) The information contained on the internet and held within big data sets is pervasive and has the potential to substantially influence their opportunities as well as their ‘digital’ and ‘offline’ identities, with significant implications for their life course, (3) Provision, creation, ownership and utilisation of this data involves a complex chain of actors, with varying degrees of understanding of the implications, risks and potential mitigation strategies (4) We have not yet imagined future data applications, finally, (5) Children’s rights are enshrined in international and national legislation, and we have a duty of care to protect them and to respect and uphold their rights as their capacities evolve.

So what does this all mean? First and critically: conversations about children and big data need to be had. A recent working paper from UNICEF Innocenti adds its voice to the movement to get these issues on the table and to push this discussion further. Beyond the written word we need knowledge exchange between all the stakeholders in the data chain. We need metaphorical group study rooms where communities, data analysts, child advocates and tech giants can share knowledge and reflect on data impacts, legacies and children’s futures. We also require technological solutions as well as systematic efforts to embed critical thinking on big data and children into both generic educational programmes as well as within programmes specifically targeted at data analysts.


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Most importantly, but frequently omitted, is that we need to listen. We need to understand children’s understanding of privacy, their perspectives on how their data should be treated, who should have access, and what controls they would like. It would be as absurd to ask a contemporary pre-teen’s perspectives on the Dewey system as it is for institutions and governments to omit children’s voices in a context where, frequently, our perspectives are the anachronisms.

In saying this, there are likely to be more solutions to protecting the security, wellbeing and data of children than those mentioned, and there will certainly be more in the future. However, it is not yet tomorrow. Today we should be laying the foundations and undertaking the preparations for a future where the rights of children and the generations that follow them are respected, recognising no one knows yet what the future will look like….but we all need to start learning and teaching now…

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