InFocus Interview: Megan Bell on The Western Australian Child Development Atlas
What did this project aim to find out?
The Western Australian Child Development Atlas (CDA) uses geographic information system technology to develop maps of government administrative and survey data related to children and young people in communities throughout the state. Comprehensive health, development, and social profiles will be developed by combining data sets from Human Service Departments. These data will be overlayed with details of services provided to children and families. The aim of the project is to provide agencies, researchers, service providers, and communities with easy access to up-to-date, quality location-based data, from multiple sources. These data will be mapped across the whole state, to provide a visual summary of area-level indicators of children’s health, learning, development and social characteristics, and how these characteristics differ across communities. This information can help to identify areas of high need, prompting investigations into whether services available in those areas are adequate to meet community needs.
Why is this issue important for early childhood?
The project has the potential to revolutionise the development and implementation of child- and family-oriented policies and services in Western Australia. It is recognised that where people live can influence family practices, and therefore, the health, wellbeing, and development of children. ‘Place’ is therefore an important factor in the development of policies and services aimed at improving outcomes for children and young people. Understanding the different strengths and challenges present in each community helps in the development of a tailored suite of programs to address early childhood disadvantage, that is responsive to community needs. The CDA will provide a consolidated depository for data that is currently siloed in separate agencies, enabling quick access to quality cross-agency data, presented in an easily understandable format. It is anticipated that this will encourage collaborative efforts and innovative solutions to address the complex problems disadvantaged children and families face.
What impact will your research have / what is significant about your research?
Although there are other examples of mapping work across Australia, the CDA is the first mapping tool to focus on the outcomes of children and young people. It is also the first to use administrative data that is not publicly available, and which has been historically difficult to access. Instant access to comprehensive information on the outcomes of children and young people across the state will create efficiencies for service providers, policy makers, and researchers, who can use the Atlas to focus their time and money on priority areas. The project involves consultation and collaboration across a range of sectors, including state and local government, research, service providers, practitioners, community organisations, and consumers. It is hoped that the project will foster the kind of ‘joined-up thinking’ that is needed to address complex problems such as early childhood disadvantage.
What are the implications of your research?
• For communities:
Communities often know the challenges they face, so by sharing these data (in a comprehendible format), we aim to empower communities to mobilise their resources to support children and families living in their local area. For example, through the CDA, communities will have access to data that can support efforts to advocate for changes in the distribution and delivery of services in their area, and to start conversations about child-centred community development, with the aim of supporting families to raise healthy, happy, successful children, regardless of where they live.
• For parents/families:
Currently, the services available in a particular area may not be adequate to support community needs. Families may have to travel long distances to access services, which may prove prohibitive to engagement with those services if families do not have the means for travel. By providing a visual summary of the profile of children within a geographic area, it is hoped that the CDA will prompt agencies and services to consider how best to deliver appropriate services to meet the needs of families living in priority areas.
• For policymakers?
Work that happens across agencies, rather than in silos, is the best way to address complex problems like developmental vulnerability. This can be supported by policy makers within different agencies having access to quality cross-agency data that is easily accessible and quickly understood. Furthermore, access to place-based information supports the development of geographically-sensitive policy, which acknowledges the different strengths and challenges present in each community. The CDA will address these needs by providing quality place-based data from multiple government agencies.
• For educators/practitioners?
Practitioners and educators will be able to use the CDA to understand the profile of the population of children and young people in the geographic locations they are working in. It is anticipated that this will enhance knowledge of potential challenges to engagement in services, demand for particular services, and community strengths, all of which can inform practice.
What change would you like to see in early childhood policy/practice/research related to this research project?
Ideally, universal services and programs should be provided to all children and families, with more intensive services provided to families and in areas where they are most needed. There is substantial research demonstrating the efficacy of various programs and interventions to support children and families; however, issues of access and appropriateness of services continue to be significant barriers to families engaging with these services. It is hoped that the CDA will guide policy makers, service providers, and researchers in efforts to ensure access to quality early childhood services, regardless of where people live.
What are the priorities for future research in this area?
We hope to be able to enhance cross-agency collaboration in efforts to address factors contributing the disadvantage for children and families in Western Australia. Long term, it is hoped that other states and territories will develop similar tools, and/or a national Child Development Atlas, to benefit children and families across the country.