The Population Council GIRL Center’s mission has always been data-driven. The programs we’ve built and the policies we’ve helped craft are guided by advanced demographic analyses that allow decision-makers to target specific issues and ensure that resources are used effectively. Our latest innovation in using data for change is the Adolescent Atlas for Action (A3), a set of free online tools for exploring gaps in adolescent education, health, and well-being around the world.
Today, we sat down with Dr. Thoai Ngo, our VP for Social and Behavioral Science, the founder of the GIRL Center, and the creative force behind the A3. In this Q&A, he walks us through the A3’s guiding philosophy and why it’s so important for data to be publicly accessible to generate actionable insights.
GIRL Center (GC): The A3 officially launched this week, fulfilling a goal you’ve pursued since the creation of the GIRL Center. Can you walk us through the idea behind it?
Dr. Thoai Ngo (TN): Of course! First, I want to offer my congratulations to everyone at the GIRL Center for this massive achievement. Alongside our partners, everyone involved deserves all the credit in the world for getting this off the ground.
In terms of where the A3 comes from, it’s really a continuation of the work we started in 2017 when we first launched the GIRL Center. We envisioned it as a one-stop-shop for all available data and evidence on adolescents, making information available and accessible to everyone outside of the bubble of scientific research. The big problem we had was democratizing the data—getting it outside of the walls of academia and research institutions. Usually, scientists collect data from low- and middle-income countries, analyze it at universities and institutes in high-income countries, and then publish it in journal articles that are locked behind paywalls. It’s hard for anyone outside those circles to get it or use it.
Our first step toward solving that problem was the Adolescent Data Hub, a predecessor to the A3. It is the world’s largest open-access catalogue for existing data on adolescents, and it was a big step forward. But I still felt that it didn’t do everything we needed: decision-makers in government, healthcare, and education don’t just need to be able to access the data. They need to be able to understand it quickly and easily in a way that’s relevant to their choices around funding and policymaking. The kind of information they need is fundamentally different from what scientists work with. These decision-makers frequently need access to quick data points on where adolescents are living, how they are faring, and who should be targeted with which programs and policies. And that’s how we got to the idea of the A3.
GC: So, the motivation for the A3 is to fill that gap?
TN: Right. Everything about the platform is designed to make it useful—it isn’t just a portal of information, it’s a set of custom-built tools for answering specific questions. It isn’t meant to be used by just researchers, it’s specifically designed for people working to implement adolescent programs and decision-makers in government or the private sector to be able to quickly get the knowledge they need to craft investment cases or public policies.
That’s why we built it the way we did. The A3 is a data platform designed like an atlas, covering a huge range of data points on adolescent issues. It gives users the specific information that they need in the moment but also provides a holistic picture of young people’s lives instead of breaking down the information into separated categories like “education” or “health.” For instance, if you’re interested in adolescent education, you’ll be able to learn about the gendered barriers negative affecting education outcomes for girls, like child marriage, pregnancy, and violence.
What this means is that anyone can use the A3 to put together a bigger story that’s more compelling than any isolated statistics at the global level or at regional, national, or sub-national hotspots. Another neat feature in the A3 is that it illustrates policy gaps by overlaying issues facing adolescents with existing national policies. You can see what’s being done about a particular problem, which makes it a lot easier to figure out what other steps we might need to take.
GC: Why is it important to focus on adolescent data in particular?
TN: Because it’s a gap in our knowledge. Adolescence is a unique phase of growth. It’s different from the rapid physical growth of childhood and the long-term psychological growth of adulthood. It’s a complex combination of sexual and reproductive development, changes in gender identity, social power dynamics, and many other issues, all intertwined and all in transition. It’s the part of our lives that is the most dynamic, and yet it’s also the part we know the least about.
There’s also a note of urgency here. Right now, the biggest generation of 1.8 billion young people in history are in the middle of their teenage years, and we owe it to them to do everything we can to help them thrive and grow into the leaders and change-makers the world needs right now.
GC: What do you envision for the A3 over the coming years?
TN: We want to change how people understand and explore issues of adolescent wellbeing. This goes back to the platform’s design. We want people to show up with a question, seamlessly find a tool that can answer it, then have the A3’s design naturally lead them on to other interlinked areas of knowledge.
The longer-term vision is to strengthen that core function. We’re thinking about data triangulation and analytics from different sources, including informal ones coming from outside the realm of academic research. For example, how do we integrate population level data, environmental data, and survey data with data on access to social media and data about mobile phone use? Getting those combinations right can give us a much more complete and holistic picture of adolescent lives.
We’re also looking at ways to help users see trends that emerge over time—what’s changing, what’s likely to change, and how young people’s lives are being affected. Ultimately, the A3 will be doing its job if people working in adolescent health and wellbeing start to think in a broader, more intersectional way, moving beyond traditional single-outcome indicators and starting to imagine healthy adolescents as whole people with many overlapping needs. My hope is that insights from the A3 will bring people together across disciplines and sectors. We’re going to need that kind of collaboration and innovation in order to solve the intertwined challenges of the climate crisis, massive inequality, and widespread poverty that are faced by this rising generation.