Harnessing big data to protect SA’s children

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In a first for South Australia, researchers have created a whole-of-government database to “join the dots” between myriad information sources, enabling more, and more effective, interventions for children at risk of harm or poor health outcomes.

Child protection is an important and sensitive topic at any time. But in recent years in South Australia it has become particularly so, with intense public scrutiny and discussion culminating in the handing down of the Child Protection Systems Royal Commission report by the Honourable Margaret Nyland in August 2016.

As the Nyland report noted, however, a major research project launched at the University of Adelaide in 2009 is now providing the community a valuable new tool with which to enhance our children’s safety.

The South Australian Early Childhood Data Project (SA ECDP), conducted by the BetterStart Child Health and Development Research Group in the University’s School of Public Health, has created one of the most comprehensive population-based administrative research databases in the country.

According to project creator and lead researcher Professor John Lynch, the ECDP database “joins the dots” between over seven million data records from more than 30 different government sources.

“The project has high prevention potential through the identification of modifiable risk factors and opportunities for intervention,” says Professor Lynch.

“We’re cross-referencing large amounts of perinatal, hospital, child and family health, education, public housing, child protection and youth justice data for every birth cohort of South Australian children born from 1999 onwards.”

The ECDP database has already provided authorities with useful child protection information, he says.

“We’ve identified that, within each birth cohort from 1999 to 2005, by the age of 10: one in four children had at least one child protection notification; one in 20 had at least one substantiation; and one in 50 had at least one out-of-home-care episode.

“We’ve also found approximately 30% of South Australian kids experience at least one risk factor relating to their psychosocial, health or other development-related status, and a similar number have parents experiencing barriers to effective parenting.”

While the project’s child protection applications are a current focus, the ECDP database also has exciting prevention capabilities for a wide range of other children’s psychosocial, developmental, and health outcomes.

“It’s designed to help government, non-government and community groups target, develop, and—importantly—evaluate interventions to improve all kinds of situations for children in our state,” says Professor Lynch.

“The ECDP’s whole-government view can also inform research, service provision and policy around child health and development—from the perinatal period right through to adolescence.

“It’s very much a public-good resource.”

Related links:
Professor John Lynch – researcher profile
School of Public Health
Better start – Child health and development research group