Meet the Team: CSDA Senior Research Fellow Matt Walsh

December 22, 2017

Ethics are an important debate for any government agency considering using people’s data but CSDA Senior Research Fellow Matt Walsh says agencies also need to consider their responsibility to create and fund programmes that work.

“It is important for organisations to step back and realise they are already making decisions that impact people’s lives, for instance about what programmes to fund or how to allocate limited resources, so they should use the data available to make the best decisions they can.”

Matt’s last role was with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) where he was tasked with expanding the Department’s analytic capacity and harnessing its collective data assets to improve decision-making.

“That role was very much about working across different departments in DCF to understand what data was available and what the limitations were for those data. We also did a lot of training for DCF staff and created overviews and training sessions for policymakers so they could understand how data were being used and what they meant.”

Matt is hoping to apply this experience and work as a conduit between CSDA and policymakers, helping them extract meaningful information and answers from their data.

Finding meaningful answers from data has been a recurrent theme in Matt’s career to date. After completing undergraduate degrees in biology (ecology, ethology and evolution) and biochemistry, he spent several years working as a database and network administrator before he went looking for a way to merge his two interests.

“Epidemiology seemed like a nice mixture of science and data.” Matt completed a Masters in Public Health (focusing on epidemiology) at Emory University and ticked off his goal of working for the CDC - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta - before completing his PhD in Epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison Matt worked in the Department of Population Health Sciences running the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin, which is a good fit with work he’s carrying out now with his new colleagues at CSDA.

One of his first projects at CSDA has been to delve into the data collected by the Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) longitudinal study and look at which children are most likely to experience adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

“ACEs are a specific set of childhood experiences in the categories of abuse, neglect and household dysfunction that researchers (starting with Felitti et al, 1998) have found are associated with health and social problems as an adult.  Our first task on the GUiNZ project was working to find data collected in the study that mapped to specific ACEs, allowing us count the number of ACEs experienced by each child.”

“Numerous studies have indicated a relationship between ACEs and the adoption of risky health behaviours, disease and early death.  The long-term goal of this project is to show we can predict how many ACEs a child is likely to experience and to focus on protective factors related to children who appear to be ‘beating the odds’ (experiencing no ACEs when we predicted they would experience two or more).”

The project still has another six months to run but Matt says the CSDA team already has a paper under review looking at the ACEs experience for children in the GUiNZ study and how it relates to their primary school readiness.

“We found that over half of GUiNZ children experienced at least one ACE before they turned five. We also found that children with more ACEs were more likely to perform in the bottom third for seven of eight common school readiness tests investigated in the GUiNZ study. “

Ultimately, Matt says, the real value in this project - and others like it - will be sharing the findings with organisations that can use the insights from the data to make changes that will have a positive impact on children and their families.