youth & education

Smaller Data, Healthier Kids, Smarter Cities

Dec 10, 2019

“It has been nearly 10 years since WHO published its Global Recommandations on Physical Activity and Health. This means that nearly a decade ago, countries and the general public have learned that physical inactivity was identified as the fourth leading factor for global mortality.”

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Moreover, countries have learned that it is recommended that kids and youth (5-17 years old) should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorously intense physical activity daily. It also states that anything beyond 60 minutes will provide
additional health benefits.

A very specific, and frankly speaking, easy to understand indicator, right? Your kids should simply get 60 minutes of physical activity a day, every day. What’s there not to understand? So do they? So are your kids, or the kids in the city in which you live in, active enough?

One might think that by June 2020, when the Global Recommendations celebrate their 10th anniversary, the vast majority of the kids and youth around the world will be physically active every single day, and we will be able to move on, forgetting that the inactivity problem even existed.

But the reality is totally different. Eight years later, only one in four adolescents worldwide meets the previously set global recommendations. So recently, the very same organisation, WHO, seeing a slow progress in implementing the recommendations, decided to publish yet another document on the very same topic.

This time, it is called Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018 – 2030 (GAPPA).

GAPPA is different from 2010’s Recommendations in many ways. It is definitely more “actionable” or “goal oriented”. The use of the word “target”, for instance, appeared more than twice as often in the latter document. Moreover, “target” does not only appear in contexts like “target population” or “target audience”, but it is used to describe very specific goals that we should reach by 2030. Like “a 15% relative reduction in the global prevalence of physical inactivity in adults and in adolescents by 2030.” It also talks about monitoring and evaluation. It provides very specific objectives and focuses on ways to achieve them.

But will it be enough for people, kids and youth specifically, to change their behaviour by sitting less and moving more?

Will the top-down approach, thus BIG DATA and BIG SOLUTIONS on their own, solve the problems of physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle? I am afraid NOT.

Big Data

If created properly, BIG DATA will provide valuable input for BIG STRATEGIES (worldwide, continental or even national levels). What we have to remember, though, is that the BIG DATA, because of many factors like measurement or the structure of information it has “digested”, etc., is unidentifiable, unlocatable and truly meaningless. And again, for creating big visions this is probably what it needs to be.

But what about us? What about us as individuals? What about our kids?

How many parents do you know who will influence the change in their kids’ behaviour upon learning that physical inactivity is identified as the fourth leading factor for global mortality?

Or let’s take overweight and obesity for instance. Various robust research studies and statistics on overweight and obesity have been around for many years now and I presume many of us have heard that it is a major problem globally. Probably some have also heard that obesity has nearly tripled over the last 40 years. To be exact, over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016.(1)

But how does all this information relate to me or my kids? “Are Bart and Eva, my kids, in this group? No, probably not. They can’t be, I take them to the pool twice a week.”

It is only after you ask your child to step on a bathroom scale that you will be able to realise that there might be a problem that you have to deal with. And you do not have to be an expert on BMI (Body Mass Index) to understand that your child might be “off” the scale. Three minutes of online research will be enough to learn whether your child’s body weight fits into different norms. It is that single piece of information, the simplest possible data, displayed in pounds or kilos, which is the most important piece of data. Simply because it is about your own child, not a global “average” that we cannot connect to.

What we decide to do with this personalised data is a totally different story. Because having that piece of information is just the beginning. What decisions will we make? What changes in our lives will we introduce and what habits will we form to be more active, sit less, lose weight etc.?

Easy questions to answer, right? But think about whether you know someone, an adult person, not a child, an adult, just like yourself who, upon learning that he/she was overweight, decides that starting “next Monday” he/she will get a yearly gym pass, healthy food delivered to the doorstep, new running gear and last, but not least, buys a smart watch and maybe a new scale that they connect to the smartphone so the weight loss will be strictly monitored.

And then?

After a bit of time passes, when the notch on the scale has not moved or even worse, even after a few austerities, has moved up, he/she decides to put the worries away by putting the scale away in a closet. Because, in the end, all one needs is to go to the store to buy a new pair of pants, since clearly the last pair must have really shrunk in the wash. Problem solved. Tick!

But does this mean that we do not need SMALL, personalised data? On the contrary. We simply have not yet learned how to use it properly. Why? Because getting personalised data on our weight, blood pressure, heart rate, sleeping patterns, calories burned during the day, number of steps, heartbeat, has never been easier than it is now.

Most of the above-mentioned data will be “delivered to your wrist” the moment you put on the new smartwatch and connect it to your phone. The accuracy of these devices will only get better as the technology advances. Therefore, what we need to do is to develop ways how to embed this data into our daily lives and use it for our own personal benefits.

So getting your very own personal data on your kids’ health is just the first step. And this data cannot be just abstract numbers, one has to understand how it is connected to their lives in order to create an emotional connection to the information.

It would be great if understanding where you stand will lead you to an idea of where you want to be, so you can make that your own choice. And the tricky part would be how to get there, what you should do to get there and remembering that small steps make a big difference.

How using small data could drive behavioural change in primary school kids

In Poland, just like anywhere else, I assume, kids are not active enough, spend way too much time sitting, often glued to the screen, and the notch on their scales is quickly moving up.

So in 2017, after many months of preparation, together with Benefit Systems, our Patron, we embarked on a journey to deliver a very complex project, with a very simple vision. The goal of MultiSport Active Schools initiative is to increase the physical fitness level of the participating kids. And from the sustainability point of view, to inspire schools to make long lasting changes. Creating “active environments” will enable kids to be physically active throughout the day.
The way to achieve this was by providing very SMALL data on physical fitness of the kids on different levels:

Individual – the goal was for the parents to learn about the fitness level of their own children, how the results relate to other kids and ideally, together with their child decide on what can be changed in order to get better fitness

Class – the goal was for the PE (Physical Education) teachers to learn about the fitness level of the entire class

School – the school’s principal would get a report on the physical fitness level of the entire school

We understood that we cannot just provide the data. We knew that in order to change every school’s little world, we would need to be ready to provide some very specific yet simple ideas, inspiration and best practices on what could be done to improve the results.

Moreover, these ideas should be targeted and tailored to different needs, based on a low cost, low risk, high visibility basis.

Setting our project’s feet on the ground

But before we even started, we needed to have everyone on board – school headmasters, teachers (not only PE), parents, local governments and most importantly the KIDS. We wanted to make sure that everyone in the school’s community understands WHY we are doing this. So, in the pilot phase, we took the time to meet with all of the 35 schools who have made it through to the second round, after an evaluation, to present what are the direct benefits for the kids from being physically active.

So the program began with a workshop for teachers, parents, local authorities and children. We explained why the collaboration between everyone is so important in achieving a common goal – a better, healthy life for children. We started working together on the training plan – list of highly visible, low cost and low risk ideas on how to introduce more activity in schools. The plan preparation was also done through the lenses of 10 common indicators used by the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance (2) such as active play, active transportation, active school, family and peers, community and environment.

The plan was then implemented between the two tests.

Moreover, since we have an approx. 40-year history of collecting some of the data we could relate to the parents’ childhood and their experiences when they were young – in order to make this personal connection. And again, even though it was not personal, data came in very handy, showing the trend how, with every passing decade, Polish kids are getting slower and weaker.

In order to illustrate this, let’s take Peter. When Peter was 8 years old in 1979, he took a Flexed Arm Hang Test using a pull-up bar. Back then, Peter was able to keep his eye line above the bar for exactly 19,44 seconds. Peter’s son, Hubert, on the other hand, thirty years later, who was 8 years old in 2009, would only get an 8,5 seconds score. Needless to say that the results have only worsened since then.

What about girls? Let’s take a 600-meter run then. If Jolanta, who was 8 years old in 1979, could race her daughter Agata, who was 8 years old in 2009, the latter would be 120 meters behind Jolanta when she would be crossing the finish line.

By creating a story around the data we had at the beginning, we made it much more personal and by putting this into context, people had a better chance of establishing a closer connection with our presentation.

So once we had everyone on board, we moved on to the second stage.

The Concept

Our concept is based on the idea of the EuroFit (3) test that we have modified/digitalised and gamified. In order to draw the kids into the project, we have also created an overarching narrative. When the Active Schools bus arrives at school, it is time for an adventure to begin. It is on this bus that we bring fitness equipment, our best people – Inactivity Busters and…the monsters.

The story behind this is that a Bad Evil, a ruler of the Galaxy of Physical Inactivity, has sent his monsters to Earth to steal kids’ energy. The children’s goal is to do their best at jumping, running etc., but also to defeat the monsters, which makes the whole experience fun and exciting. Our animators – Inactivity Busters – make sure the children stay safe and leave the gym wanting even more!

After six months, we return to each school for the 2nd round, to verify if results have improved. There is no individual competition. Children compete as a team (on a class and school level) and their individual goal is to beat their scores from the 1st round.

Once children have completed the test, the parents receive data with the specific test results of their own child. Depending on the situation, they also get a set of recommendations on how they could include more physical activity in their everyday lives. After the first edition, we were happy to find out that 86 % of schools had improved their average score per child! Results were converted to points, considering gender and age, to make sure that the change we observed was not a natural consequence of child development, but a result of increased daily physical activity, participation in PE lessons, awareness and desire to be physically fit, hence healthy, which lays the very first foundation for physical literacy building.

Other achievements are difficult to count; however, they are the ones that count the most. While working with schools, we introduced a change that resulted in more and more action. We left the schools happy knowing that, even though the program was over, the fight for children’s health and well-being is not. And we know that it is still on-going.

All of the above wouldn’t be possible without cross-sector collaboration on many different levels, but most importantly the cooperation between V4SPORT Foundation and Benefit Systems.

What does a smart cities concept have to do with it?

We are now observing a growing interest of the different cities to acquire data on physical fitness levels of kids going to schools in their jurisdictions. The reason being is that a city, no matter its size, needs more SMALL, LOCAL data to make Data Driven Policy- making Decisions in the area of children’s health and physical activity.

And what’s interesting is that the cities we have spoken to are not interested in “using” national reports or even reports from the city that is only 1.5 hours away, but instead they want their own, localised data. Data that they will be able to use to back up many future local decisions, ideally on building new bike paths, buying bike and scooter racks for schools, providing additional support for PE teachers and many others.

Systematically gathered data would allow them to monitor the success rate of their interventions.

And let’s not forget – the more SMALL DATA we produce, the better BIG DATA will be.

Jakub Kalinowski
– Member of the Rural Sport Commission of the Polish Olympic Committee
– Executive Committee Member of the International Sport and Culture Association      (ISCA)
– Executive Committee Member of the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance


1. Obesity and health, WHO key facts.

2. The International Impact of the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance Physical Activity Report Cards for Children and Youth, Salomé Aubert, Joel D. Barnes, Megan L. Forse, Evan Turner, Silvia A. González, Jakub Kalinowski, Peter T. Katzmarzyk, Eun-Young Lee, Reginald Ocansey, John J. Reilly, Natasha Schranz, Leigh M. Vanderloo and Mark S. Tremblay, Journal of Physical Activity and Health, vol. 16, issue 9.

3. The Eurofit Physical Fitness Test Battery is a set of nine physical fitness tests covering flexibility, speed, endurance and strength. The standardised test battery was devised by the Council of Europe, for children of school age and has been used in many European schools since 1988.

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