Making Women and Girls Data Visible: The GovLab and Data2X Facilitate Event on Big Data and Gender

Left to Right: Emily Courey Pryor (Executive Director, Data2X), Anousheh Ansari (CEO, XPrize Foundation), Vivienne Ming (Co-Founder, Socos Labs), Stefaan Verhulst (Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer, The GovLab at NYU). Photo credit: Data2X.

Left to Right: Emily Courey Pryor (Executive Director, Data2X), Anousheh Ansari (CEO, XPrize Foundation), Vivienne Ming (Co-Founder, Socos Labs), Stefaan Verhulst (Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer, The GovLab at NYU). Photo credit: Data2X.

By Andrew J. Zahuranec, Michelle Winowatan, and Stefaan Verhulst

Five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly made achieving gender equality a Sustainable Development Goal, a global priority to achieve by 2030. Today, with only a decade remaining, the need for high-quality data to measure progress is more important than ever. The lack of gender-disaggregated data often can render the struggle of women invisible.

Efforts to meet this goal are underway around the world and Data2X, an alliance on gender data hosted at the United Nations Foundation, is leading many of them. Together with The GovLab at NYU, Data2X hosted a daylong panel series, Big Data, Big Impact? The Future of Gender-Sensitive Data Systems at the Ford Foundation in New York. 

This event was the culmination of Data2X’s Big Data for Gender Challenge, where Data2X awarded grants to ten projects which sought to use big data to address the gender data gap. Projects involved using mobile data and geospatial data to understand educational inequality and street harassment and women’s educational choices, respectively. Others looked at women’s role in the digital economy.

Bapu Vaitla, a Data2X fellow, compiled outcomes from the awarded projects in a report

From this research, Data2X concluded big data offers insights to women and girls and can be scaled and integrated with traditional data sources. However, organizations must be aware of biases and take steps to protect women and girls, which might involve including them in data governance.

Setting the Agenda

Over 120 high-level attendees from government, civil society, academia, and the private sector discussed how big data can fill the gender data gap and tackle gender inequality. Throughout the day, panelists asked what approaches might maximize its potential while limiting harms. 

“The problem is that data on women and girls is just missing. It is just not collected in many cases and these gender gaps hit every field,” said Data2X Executive Director Emily Courey Pryor in her opening remarks.

She added, “If we want change, then we need to commit to understanding how half the world’s population experiences the world and we cannot do that if we do not change the way we collect and use gender data.”

Conversations throughout the day explored how this change could take place. In one session, experts from Data-Pop Alliance, Data2X, and NYU discussed how big data could better quantify the realities of women, so long as users accounted for their biases. In another, Bapu Vaitla spoke about the need for women and girls to be central to data governance. In a third session on values, Vivienne Ming of Socos Lab noted that the data gap, “is a byproduct of an old problem: that the world is designed for half of the population.”

As Pryor noted in her closing remarks having these multiple perspectives and voices were integral to addressing gender inequalities. Speakers from organizations as far-flung as the University of Oxford, Flowminder, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Women’s World Banking transformed a conversation about technical data issues into questions of power and incentives. As data scientists pursue systems to represent and deliver services to women and girls, addressing these facets are integral. 

The day’s agenda and a full list of speakers can be found here.

Addressing Gaps in Urban Mobility

Among these sessions was a presentation on gender gaps in urban mobility delivered by Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer at The GovLab.  

With Data2X’s support, The GovLab worked with UNICEF, Universidad del Desarrollo, Telefónica R&D Center, ISI Foundation, and DigitalGlobe to establish a data collaborative in Santiago de Chile to understand the relationship between urban mobility and gender. Data collaboratives, a new form of collaboration beyond the public–private model in which participants from different sectors exchange data to create public value, can have enormous value in answering questions with societal importance. 

The research confirmed urban mobility is gendered. Women and girls have lower mobility compared to men and boys, visiting fewer unique locations and traveling shorter distances. These inequalities worsened for women of lower socio-economic status. Availability of public transportation did not appear to have an equalizing effect.

This gap, echoed in other research using different methods, has serious consequences for female well-being and needs to be addressed to realize gender equality. 

The research demonstrates the value of big data in filling the gender data gap. It shows how call detail records and other non-traditional data sources can expose urban problems at a large scale and in a granular way. It can also support existing research on gendered mobility, providing new evidence for an entrenched, international problem.

“What was unique about this study was that we used data that could confirm real behavior as opposed to describing it,” he said. “The innovation was more in methodology than in finding.” 

Stefaan recommended the government and civil society actors pursue pilots to improve this situation. These projects might improve the availability of childcare, expand safety measures, or increase access to transportation information. He also emphasized the need to expand and deepen data collaboration to measure the value of data over time.

“Most of [society’s] data collaboratives are not systematic. They are one-offs. They stop at prototyping. They’re always pilots.” Stefaan said, “We need to keep doing experimentation and not stop. We need an infrastructure that can let us see what does work and does not work.”

Stefaan ended by introducing The 100 Questions Initiative. An effort to identify the most transformative societal questions answerable through data and data science methods, Data2X provides financial support and expertise in improving the quality, availability, and use of data in the gender domain. It also plays an advisory role in all other domains where gender is relevant. The organization is helping identify a global community of “bilinguals,” practitioners across fields who possess both domain knowledge and data science expertise.

Whether participating in additional conferences or leading projects such as the initiative in Santiago de Chile, The GovLab will remain engaged on gender issues. While there is still much that needs to be done, we hope our work and the work of Data2X can inspire more gender-inclusive governance.

A recording of the event, including The GovLab’s presentation, can be found here.