Strength in numbers: Data-driven decision-making for aging societies

McGill’s Amélie Quesnel-Vallée to lead international consortium, supported by $2.5M SSHRC Partnership Grant, to train next generation of population analysts

The Canadian population is aging. For the first time in our history, people 65 and up outnumber those 14 and under. To adapt to this unprecedented demographic shift, we must reimagine our health and social systems.

“Change of this magnitude requires innovation and collaboration across all sectors of society,” says Amélie Quesnel-Vallée, Canada Research Chair in Policies and Health Inequalities.

Amélie Quesnel-Vallée is the Canada Research Chair in Policies and Health InequalitiesOwen Egan

To tackle this challenge, Quesnel-Vallée has been awarded a $2.5-million Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to support an international consortium that will train the next generation of population analysts.

She notes that one promising avenue for social innovation is the vast amount of “Big Data” at our disposal. This has the potential to provide valuable insights into social, economic, and health issues — but these insights won’t come from unstructured data. Decision makers need to have access to the best data-driven intelligence informed by deep understanding of the social and demographic processes at play.

“This intelligence doesn’t come cheap and, at this point, is only available to the highest bidders,” says Quesnel-Vallée, a McGill professor jointly appointed to the Faculties of Arts (Sociology) and Medicine (Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health). “This leaves out several sectors of society, including governments and non-profits, and the more deprived populations they often support.”

The Consortium on Analytics for Data-Driven Decision-Making (or “CAnD3”) is a collaboration of 32 partners, including universities, government departments, and private and not-for-profit organizations across Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Germany. The partners have made commitments totalling $4.1 million in matching contributions.

“It’s such an inspiring group to work with,” Quesnel-Vallée says of her 46 co-applicants and collaborators. She notes CAnD3’s motto will be Strength in Numbers.

SSHRC Partnership Grants support large teams working in formal collaboration between postsecondary institutions and public, private, or not-for-profit organizations to advance research, research training, and knowledge mobilization in the social sciences and humanities.

Six-year mandate

With a six-year mandate, the CAnD3 partners will develop, implement, and deliver Population Analytics in an Aging Society, an experiential training program that will complement formal education in population research.

“We’re providing a nimble response to an emerging need,” says Quesnel-Vallée, who is also Founding Director of the McGill Observatory on Health and Social Services Reforms.

CAnD3 is the first Canadian research training initiative to address a skills shortage in population analytics on three fronts — substantive knowledge in population research focused on aging societies; data science skills; and knowledge mobilization in support of evidence-informed decision-making.

Trainees will learn how to provide accurate and impactful insights on social, economic, and health issues related to aging societies. Crucially, the trainees will also be equipped with the skills to communicate these insights to a wide range of audiences.

Program set to launch in fall 2020

Quesnel-Vallée and her collaborators will launch the program in fall 2020 and subsequently train 150 population analysts over the six-year period. As well, 360 individuals from partner organizations will participate in the training modules, which will include “Ethics and Data Science” and “Gender-Based Analysis.”

“This is where we really differ from standard computer science or data science training,” says Quesnel-Vallée. “We bring social science concepts and principles to the fore.”

In designing CAnD3, she and her collaborators have embedded principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Internships will be subsidized for non-profit partners who might not have the financial capacity to hire trainees. Indigenous students will be actively recruited, with support from Statistics Canada and a scholarship from McGill’s Faculty of Arts. Where possible, all activities will be conducted in English and French. And with female partners comprising more than 50 per cent of the CAnD3 roster of co-applicants, the initiative has a fundamental commitment to gender equity.

COVID-19 is “shining a bright light on the fact that we need to think differently.”

A medical sociologist and social demographer, Quesnel-Vallée examines how social policies contribute to health inequalities over the life course. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, we see this more than ever,” she says. “The most vulnerable older individuals, as well as racialized and low-income communities, are much more affected.” She points to how cities are organized along social fault lines. “Physical distancing is a privilege. That needs to be acknowledged.”

Quesnel-Vallée notes that Canada’s health care and social systems were developed during the Baby Boom years that followed the end of WWII. “We’re still largely proceeding as if it were that time,” she says. “The pandemic is now shining a bright light on the fact that we need to think differently.”

The CAnD3 partnership will produce highly qualified population analysts who have benefited from the best in academic scholarship and acquired top-notch data science and knowledge translation skills. Experiential learning opportunities with the non-academic partners will also prepare graduates for work outside academia.

“We need the backbone of the excellent formal programs in population research at our 15 university partners, but we also need to respond to emerging needs faster,” says Quesnel-Vallée. “We heard that loud and clear from our non-academic partners.”

“If we produce graduates who can speak to different audiences and translate what they’ve learned into actionable evidence — whether in or out of academia — then, as a society we’re all better off.”

Read about Delphine Collin-Vézina, another leading McGill researcher recently awarded a $2.5M SSHRC Partnership Grant.

Read about the 18 other McGill researchers who were awarded SSHRC grants in May 2020.