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March 23, 2017

From Texts to Tweets to Satellites: The Power of Big Data to Fill Gender Data Gaps

By | Blog, Digital development, Global development, International development, Sustainable Development Goals

Guest Blog by Rebecca Furst-Nichols

Twitter posts, credit card purchases, phone calls, and satellites are all part of our day-to-day digital landscape.

Data2x Big Data LaunchDetailed data, known broadly as “big data” because of the massive amounts of passively collected and high-frequency information that such interactions generate, are produced every time we use one of these technologies. These digital traces have great potential and have already developed a track record for application in global development and humanitarian response.

Data2X has focused particularly on what big data can tell us about the lives of women and girls in resource-poor settings. Our research, released today in a new report, Big Data and the Well-Being of Women and Girls, demonstrates how four big data sources can be harnessed to fill gender data gaps and inform policy aimed at mitigating global gender inequality. Big data can complement traditional surveys and other data sources, offering a glimpse into dimensions of girls’ and women’s lives that have otherwise been overlooked and providing a level of precision and timeliness that policymakers need to make actionable decisions.

Here are three findings from our report that underscore the power and potential offered by big data to fill gender data gaps:

1. Social media data can improve understanding of the mental health of girls and women.

Mental health conditions, from anxiety to depression, are thought to be significant contributors to the global burden of disease, particularly for young women, though precise data on mental health is sparse in most countries. However, research by Georgia Tech University, commissioned by Data2X, finds that social media provides an accurate barometer of mental health status.

Algorithms can not only detect genuine self-disclosures of mental illness on Twitter, but can disaggregate these tweets by sex and gauge characteristics like tone and affect to track positive or negative expressions. Across the world, these tools can serve as an early first step in assessing prevalence of mental health conditions. And for individual women and girls, they may be used to provide information on treatment and resources to groups with high prevalence levels.

These methodologies still have limitations, including bias toward literate (and tech-literate) women and girls, dominant-language Twitter users, and those with access to the internet.

However, as more women, and particularly young women, come online, these methodologies are likely to be increasingly valuable, especially given the severity of these issues and the challenges associated with collecting mental health information through other means.

2. Cell phone and credit card records can illustrate women’s economic and social patterns – and track impacts of shocks in the economy.

Our spending priorities and social habits often indicate economic status, and these activities can also expose economic disparities between women and men.

By compiling cell phone and credit card records, our research partners at MIT traced patterns of women’s expenditures, spending priorities, and physical mobility. The research found that women have less mobility diversity than men, live further away from city centers, and report less total expenditure per capita.

Since this data is continuously generated, this type of analysis can be performed over longer time spans to capture impacts of economic and environmental shocks, stressors, and policy changes on women’s lives in real time.

It is critical to note that, despite its promise, data access and privacy remain a key challenge for institutionalization of these real-time surveillance systems into country statistical offices. And, as with social media information, any analysis performed on cell phone and credit card data must be complemented with other ‘ground truthing’ surveys to ensure that researchers know what type of women are included in – and left out of – the dataset for reasons of access, affordability, literacy, and other barriers.

The 61st Commission on the Status of Women taking place this week highlights women’s economic empowerment and their roles in both paid and unpaid work, and big data holds great promise for measuring empowerment and shaping our understanding of women’s economic needs and priorities.

3. Satellite imagery can map rivers and roads, but it can also measure gender inequality.

Satellite imagery has the power to capture high-resolution, real-time data on everything from natural landscape features, like vegetation and river flows, to human infrastructure, like roads and schools. Research by our partners at the Flowminder Foundation finds that it is also able to measure gender inequality.

Satellite imagery can fill gaps in traditional surveys by providing more frequent and higher resolution information about girls’ and women’s lives. Our research piloted methods of correlating geospatial variables (like distance to roads) with well-being indicators (like literacy) to infer patterns of social and health phenomena.

Mapping these phenomena using this method can reveal pockets of gender inequalities that are typically masked by averages on the country or district level. This use of big data for more frequent, and higher resolution, information on the well-being of women and girls offers huge potential for helping policymakers more effectively direct resources to where they are needed most.

The release of this report is just the first step. Data2X is excited to explore future possibilities for using digital data sources, and this year, will announce a new opportunity for researchers interested in using big data – along with other sources – to capture multiple dimensions of girls’ and women’s lives, inform policies, and improve outcomes.


 

This blog was originally posted on UNFoundationBlog.org.

Rebecca Furst-Nichols is the Deputy Director of Data2X, working on Women’s Economic Empowerment and Data2X.

 

March 20, 2017

Making Better Use of Technology to Meet the SDGs

By | Blog, Global development, ICT4D, International development, Sustainable Development Goals, Technology

SDGsThe Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) and the ITU (the UN’s information and computing technology agency) have joined forces and launched a program of work aimed at using technology to help the world meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a set of 17 goals and 169 targets for global development.

Given the breadth of the SDGs, there are pretty much unlimited opportunities to apply technology, but we (DIAL and the ITU) want to take a structured approach to identifying the priority opportunities—areas where technology can have the greatest impact.

Specifically, we are undertaking a research and analysis effort to:

  • Gather representative impact focused Use Cases across the SDGs and sectors
  • Identify technology-addressable needs across use cases
  • Extract common functional components and underlying foundational services that support the creation and implementation of technologies to support the use cases
  • Map components to existing appropriate technologies, highlighting gaps
  • Prioritize the resulting opportunities for further platform and product development to roll all the way up to meeting the needs across use cases and sectors

Which is a fancy way of saying that we want to pull together a researched, thoughtful framework and functional architecture that highlights the most valuable places to develop and deploy appropriate technology platforms to support the SDGs.

Of course we have no intention of doing this alone. The process will be open. We are eager to engage participants across sectors.

In that spirit, we kicked off work in Geneva on March 10 by inviting more than 40 representatives of tech companies, design firms, universities, UN agencies, foundations, and implementers that work across various sectors to collectively design the research and analysis process.

This creative and experienced group did a great job of tearing apart and rebuilding the plan, pushes us to act more iteratively and inclusively.

For me the most fun part of the two day workshop were the presentations by the tech and design firms who provided concrete examples of how they define requirements and build tech for customers in low and middle income countries.

The detailed explanation by Christian Merz of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of how his team produced a similar analysis for the agriculture sector provided a solid base for a redesign process for the program overall and was a great reminder that we will be able to build off of and incorporate great work that has already been produced. This is the true joy of an open process!

Next up, we will review an initial set of use cases from a few sectors (health, agriculture, education) and produce a first analysis—posted publicly, for all to critique, improve. From there we will iterate several times, incorporating feedback on the analysis itself and additional use cases from new contributors and sectors. In each iteration the analysis—and resulting architecture of common components—will become more robust and comprehensive.

Jeff Wishnie is the senior director of platforms and services at the Digital Impact Alliance. In this position, Jeff works to increase the pace of innovation of digital platforms and services for the underserved. He brings 10 years of technology-for-development implementation experience and most recently was the senior director of program technology for Mercy Corps — an international humanitarian and development agency operating in 40+ countries.

 

 

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