Open nearly any study on childhood development and you’ll find that certain factors come up again and again as crucial for children’s healthy growth: maternal mental health, creative play, language development, and oral health, to name a few..
But there is startlingly little information available about another important factor in children’s wellbeing, which has been hiding in plain sight.
Recent research has shown that urban green spaces like city parks can make a huge difference to the lives of children, from improving social skills and motor skills, to progressing numeracy and educational achievement.
Yet not much is known about the quality of the public social spaces where children spend their time. How safe and accessible are they? And are they conducive to learning, exercise and community building?
Now, a project in Lima, Peru is sending out drones to evaluate the city’s existing green spaces and work out how to improve on them.
For its proponents, it’s the perfect use of technology to improve lives. But convincing sceptical stakeholders that drones are part of the future of policy research is proving more challenging than hoped.
The idea for a project that would monitor Lima’s public spaces developed out of GRADE, a private research institute that is focused on improving public policy in Peru.
In 2011, GRADE began collaborating with the Bernard van Leer Foundation (with whom Apolitical partners on our early childhood coverage) to evaluate how children were being served – or underserved – by public spaces.
Juan León Jara-Almonte, a Senior Researcher at GRADE, explains that he was surprised by how little data was available on the areas where children spend their time.
“When we started work on this project,” he said, “we found a lot of data about malnutrition, levels of education and development, but we didn’t have any information about, for example, how easy it is for children to go to public spaces, to play, to use playgrounds, and to spend time separated from their parents.”
Struck by this gap in information, Jara-Almonte and his colleagues developed an “observation guide” – a framework for gathering relevant data on urban parks and playgrounds.
The guide set out indicators that would help them to assess three main factors: ease of access to public spaces, the quality of those spaces, and any risks that may exist for children within or surrounding the spaces.
But how to actually examine these factors? That’s where the drones came in; the unmanned craft allow the researchers to take thousands of pictures of the different public spaces and their surrounding areas, then quickly catalogue and report on them.
Once they had the photographs, Jara-Almonte said , “We could then ask, ‘Are there problems getting between the houses and the public spaces? And once children are there, how are the dimensions? How much of the park do the children use?’”
As the GRADE researchers evaluated spaces in three districts of Lima based on drone photographs, they found that the quality of the play areas were the biggest issue. While access to the parks is relatively unrestricted, the quality and distribution of the play equipment was found to be poor, and many of the spaces are covered in litter.
The litter presented a particular concern, because one of the main benefits that children accrue from public spaces is their proximity to the natural world.
Trees, flowers and plants not only alleviate psychological stress and lead to decreases in obesity for those who spend time in them; they also reduce pollutants in the surrounding air.
In the areas targeted by GRADE, malnutrition, domestic and family violence and low incomes are just a few of the challenges that children face as they grow up. Healthy public spaces, clear of garbage and full of play equipment and trees, can make a huge difference in the lives of these kids.
Convincing the skeptics
Now that the project has established key areas for improvement using efficient drone technology, what comes next?
Jara-Almonte would like to see some of the indicators that he and his team have developed become part of the surveys that local governments are required to fill out for the national government each year. This would make it mandatory for local councils across Peru to report on the state of their public spaces, forcing improvement of these parks onto their agenda.
While funding for the project currently comes exclusively from the Bernard van Leer Foundation, GRADE’s goal is to convert the national government to this methodology to the extent that they would fund this research themselves.
But the big challenge has been convincing skeptics that the investment in drone technology is worth their while.
“When we talk about the drones, [members of local government] often say that it will be too expensive,” said Jara-Almonte. In reality, the drone budget is around $50,000, which covers photographs of about 30% of the average district – this is about how much territory gets covered in projects like GRADE’s, which investigate specific neighbourhoods where childhood challenges are rife.
On the whole, Jara-Almonte thinks most local governments could afford drones if they understood the extent of their benefits. “They don’t realise how many other things they could measure with drones. Not just childhood things, but other parts of their city: traffic, street crime, and more.”
Jara-Almonte’s experience with using the drones has convinced him that they are the easiest and most efficient way to quickly gather, systematise and analyse large amounts of accurate data. Even more promising, all of this data will end up in the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI) of Peru and will help to fill crucial gaps in public information.
While the increase in data alone could improve public service delivery across the board, perhaps the true degree to which these drones will make a difference to childhood experience is yet to be determined: it lies in the changes that will be made to spaces and behaviours as a result of the data. Drones are just the first step in a much longer process.
Jara-Almonte understands that to a certain extent, the proof will be in the pudding. When asked about his tactics for convincing sceptical government officials, he responds that no one can argue with solid evidence. “We are working to try to show them that there is a benefit, there are real consequences. When we show them the evidence, they will have to say ‘OK . . . you’re right.’”
– Megan Dent