A good start for every child, and how data science can help

Some children start life with a disadvantage. Sometimes even before they are born. A new research project involving Professor Wessel Kraaij of Leiden University investigates how data science can help give these children a good start in life.

Previous research shows that the first 1000 days in a child’s life are very important. That time from conception to the second birthday is essential for physical, cognitive and social-emotional development. Did you have a bad start as a child? That can lay the foundation for various problems later in life.

Getting vulnerable families in the picture on time

‘It is important that we get families who need extra care and support into the picture early on and can offer help,’ says Wessel Kraaij of the Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science (LIACS). ‘We are going to investigate the extent to which we can improve the existing method of identifying risks. We will do this by combining medical-social knowledge about vulnerability with data from various registration systems.’

‘Make risk prediction more accurate and support municipal health policy.’

Customized help for specific neighborhoods

‘In this way we want to both make risk prediction more accurate and support municipal health policy. This can be done, for example, by offering tailor-made help per neighborhood. In our research we will look at how we can use data analysis in a meaningful and justified way. We will do this together with the parties involved: vulnerable families, professionals and policy makers. Careful handling of personal data is paramount.’

‘For our research we use existing data such as the data kept by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS),’ explains Kraaij. ‘We combine these with data on a regional and municipal level. Then we can hopefully see which adverse conditions in the first 1000 days lead to which short and long term consequences. And we will also be able to see whether there are factors that actually have a protective effect.’

Providing the support that is needed

‘With the models we are developing, we are also recognizing risk factors that professionals can look out for. The ultimate goal is to develop a dynamic tool that can help provide families with the care and support they need during the first 1,000 days. In doing so, we hope to minimize the negative impact of disadvantage later in life.’

Wessel Kraaij – LIACS

Collaboration with the Municipality of Rotterdam

To ensure that the results of the research can be used in practice, the researchers are working closely with the municipality of Rotterdam. ‘Many responsibilities in the field of care and social initiatives now lie with the municipality,’ explains Kraaij. ‘In Rotterdam there are already various successful programs for preventing problems as much as possible and strengthening protective factors. This research fits in very well with that.’

Kraaij is in constant dialogue with all parties to see how this research can best support them. ‘It’s important that everyone understands the models and can use them properly,’ he explains. ‘We make sure that the models reduce inequality and prevent stigmatization.’

The project is led by Dr Tanja Houweling in collaboration with Dr M.P. Lambregtse-van den Berg from Erasmus MC. From Leiden, data scientist Dr. Iris Yocarini (LUMC/LIACS) and Prof. Simone van der Hof (LAW) are involved. ZonMw is funding this project from the Nationale Wetenschapsagenda with support from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, within the framework of the Kansrijke Start programme.

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