Data: Government's Best Friend

Population data is critical for government planning and budgeting. UNICEF’s Population Data for Action initiative brings important insights to countries without a census.

A crowded street in Maidiguri, Borno State, Nigeria.
19 November 2021

As populations grow and change, census data quickly becomes outdated. It takes time and money to conduct a census, and developing nations aren’t always able to keep up. This is a problem because census-based population counts are a critical part of government planning. Inaccurate, outdated census data make it extremely difficult to allocate budgets and resources. Health systems are particularly reliant on evidence-based data. How can you care for people—ensuring there are enough staff and supplies in each district—if you don’t know how many people you’re serving? It is nearly impossible to provide high-quality healthcare without accurate data. Population data generate critical insights into the needs of vulnerable populations, highlighting the best places to invest scarce resources.

UNICEF’s Population Data for Action initiative offers governments a simpler alternative to traditional census taking—a new way to get an accurate snapshot of the population. The initiative brings together demographers, statisticians, information systems specialists, health practitioners, and organizational partners—such as the University of Oslo, which developed the world's largest health information management system, called DHSI2—to generate data through an innovative new population modeling technique. Instead of questionnaires, this new model uses inhabitant counts. Instead of door-to-door surveys, the model harnesses satellite imagery, geospatial data sets, and the latest statistical methods.

So how does it work? The Population Data for Action initiative links existing data sets with satellite imagery to estimate the number of people living in un-sampled areas. In the end, governments get reliable, recent, and locally accurate population counts. The resulting data can be used in between censuses, can complement existing census data, or can be used to fill data gaps—for example, measuring populations in remote or conflict-afflicted areas. In addition to supporting health systems, these datasets can be applied to other parts of society—from school systems, to water resource management—and improve lives across the broader community. By counting traditionally unrepresented populations, UNICEF aims to encourage decision making based on true population counts.

The whole process is underpinned by capacity building. UNICEF partners with local governments to develop a collaborative, thoughtful approach to the data collection process. By working directly with ministries of health and national statistics offices, UNICEF generates much-needed data while simultaneously building capacity with local officials. This collaboration ensures the data are fed into the national health system, where they can ultimately inform health planners and decision makers. Eventually, with enough capacity, governments should be able to use the technology on their own.

The Population Data for Action model—and the data it yields—is already generating impact. Ten African governments have used the technology to generate population data and inform their decision-making. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, the government used this new technology to generate data and improve vaccination coverage for hard-to-reach populations. In Nigeria, the innovation increased polio immunization coverage across the country. With up-to-date data, health officials were able to accurately allocate vaccine supplies. In these and several other examples, data improved health service delivery.

7-month-old boy Abdul Rahman Sunus is held by his mother, Rabia Tu Khalidu, while receiving polio vaccine drops in Kano, Nigeria.
7-month-old boy Abdul Rahman Sunus is held by his mother while receiving polio vaccine drops in Kano, Nigeria.

These success stories prove that the Population Data for Action technology works. The initiative fills a data gap, which creates real development outcomes. This is a great time to expand the Population Data for Action model. In fact, 45 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa already have the building blocks in place to create population data sets, presenting UNICEF with a unique opportunity to scale the solution.

The Population Data for Action model is part of the Health Global Innovation Portfolio at UNICEF. The Global Innovation Portfolios align technical and financial resources to promising innovative solutions that can accelerate results for children in key focus areas, including Learning, Water and Sanitation, Maternal and Newborn Health, Climate Change, Gender Equality, Youth, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support, and Immunization  By bringing these proven solutions to more countries, UNICEF’s Office of Innovation strives to strategically and efficiently address some of the greatest and most pressing challenges facing children.  

Continue exploring the Office of Innovation website to learn about the many solutions and technologies the team is bringing to scale.

"UNICEF, together with GRID3 and the University of Oslo, will work to scale up this innovative source of population data for health planning and monitoring to additional countries in Africa, with the potential to reach over 175 million children under 5."

María Muñiz, Health Specialist with the UNICEF Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa.