Big Data and Small Children

In a recent paper, Janet Currie, a Professor at Princeton University asks whether privacy concerns may not be responsible for missed opportunities in pediatrics research. Economists have emphasized for a long time the importance of early childhood interventions that can lead to a significant lifetime benefit. Big Data research on children is not easy to conduct because detailed administrative records are often unavailable to researchers. For example detailed birth certificates with precise information on infants and mothers are collected but generally not made available to qualified researchers. The trend in recent years has been to eliminate the access that was previously granted in some states such as Texas. While there are valid privacy questions and interesting ethical questions related to consent, I agree that it is a missed opportunity. Since much of this data is only available in aggregate form for large counties, it makes it difficult to draw causal inference about the drivers of infant and children outcomes. Data from third-party aggregators such as Acxiom is fairly accurate at the household level, but offers limited insights about the children in the household. This impedes much valuable public health research. In a recent SIEPR policy brief I look at the impact of drinking water contaminants on infant health using county level data and find significant impacts on birth weight and APGAR scores for a number of contaminants. Given the geographic spread of contaminated drinking water it would be very insightful to do this analysis by using the precise geographic location of each mother in order to measure her exposure. This is not possible today and we are missing out on an opportunity to precisely quantify the social cost of not enforcing environmental regulations.

Acute total coliform contamination 2002-2006
Acute total coliform contamination 2002-2006
Big Data and Small Children