Unlocking the Power of Data: DSI and UNICEF Collaborate to Advance Data Science Research and Training

by Sara Elhawash

In a significant collaboration aimed at advancing data science research and training, the Data Sciences Institute (DSI) at the University of Toronto is partnering with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)’s Frontier Data and Tech team to leverage data for addressing complex challenges concerning children. This collaborative effort aligns with DSI’s strategic goal of fostering knowledge mobilization to promote the greater public good. This partnership represents a significant milestone in the journey towards leveraging the immense potential of data for effecting positive social change.  

DSI will work with UNICEF to strengthen UNICEF’s knowledge and capacities to use data science and methodologies to innovate learning, through joint research and training. This collaboration will involve joint research and training initiatives.  DSI collaborates with organizations committed to supporting world-class researchers, educators, and trainees who are at the forefront of advancing data sciences.  

“This partnership is a significant milestone for our Frontier Data Network, a global community of practice that leverages data science to positively impact the lives of children worldwide. Together, we are poised to unlock new insights, drive evidence-based decision-making, and pave the way to a brighter future for children everywhere,” says Yves Jaques, Chief of the Frontier Data and Technology Unit, UNICEF. 

As a first collaboration, Dr. Manuel Garcia-Herranz, Data Principal Researcher and Karen Avanesyan, Statistics and Monitoring education specialist at UNICEF’s Division of Data, Analytics, Planning and Monitoring (DAPM) at UNICEF, are collaborating with Professor Zahra Shakeri, Dalla Lana School of Public Health on a 2023 Summer Undergraduate Data Science (SUDS) Opportunities Program. The SUDS project, Understanding Predictive Models that can be Used to Prevent School Dropouts aims to revolutionize early warning systems in education through the application of cutting-edge AI technology. The SUDS opportunity allows a SUDS Scholar, Ziqi Shu, to gain practical experience by working on fictional yet reality-based case studies focusing on social problems affecting children. By identifying at-risk students and schools with high dropout rates, UNICEF aims to support countries with a strong Education Management Information System (EMIS) and household survey data.  

The SUDS Scholar project aims to use and generate new sources of real-time information to better inform decision makers in the development and humanitarian ecosystem. UNICEF’s Frontier Data Tech Network is a global initiative to explore and use frontier data technologies to address the most complex challenges for children in an ethical way.  

“Our aim is to develop a pilot tool that provides a comprehensive representation of the machine learning-based school dropout prediction landscape, bridging the knowledge gap in this area. This tool will utilize innovative data analysis and visualization techniques, benefiting researchers, practitioners, and other stakeholders in exploring the factors influencing school dropout among children. The long-term goal of this project is to harness the power of data science and create an adaptable, publicly accessible system that could support countries in addressing the critical issue of school dropouts. By leveraging AI technology and early warning systems, our aim is to identify and support at-risk students and schools, ultimately safeguarding every child’s right to education,” says Zahra Shakeri, Director of HIVE Lab, Institute of Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation, Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

The UNICEF-DSI partnership paves the way for further research and training collaborations. There will be opportunities to connect with the DSI community during its DSI Research Day on September 27, 2023. Dr. Manuel Garcia-Herranz will deliver the keynote address and Yves Jaques will participate in a panel discussion on Developing an Effective Data Science Workforce. The discussion will focus on equipping graduates with essential Data Science skills required in today’s diverse fields and industries. The DSI Research Day showcases the work of the DSI community, fostering connections and engagement among academia, industry, and government stakeholders. 

“By combining our community’s expertise in data science with UNICEF’s commitment to driving results for children globally, we have the opportunity to make a profound impact. Through our joint efforts, we aim to strengthen UNICEF’s knowledge and capacities in utilizing data science methodologies, fostering innovation in learning and ultimately creating a brighter future for children worldwide,” says Lisa Strug, Director, Data Sciences Institute.  

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