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New report calls for ‘big data’ to help world’s most vulnerable women and girls

The majority of the world now has access to cell phones – one of many tools experts say should be utilized to gather data on women and girls. (Albert González Farran - UNAMID/Flickr)

A lack of information on the experiences of women and girls is one of the greatest barriers to addressing their needs, particularly in the developing world. A new report seeks to fill that gap by demonstrating how “big data” can provide critical information on health, social status and other experiences of women in countries where data is most lacking.

The report was released today by Data2X, a United Nations Foundation initiative aiming to advance gender equality through improved data collection. Deputy Director Rebecca Furst-Nichols said the report calls for ways to supplement traditional forms of data collection that often unintentionally silence women and girls.

“Most surveys are done at the household level, and that’s where you get a lot of gender bias in data,” Furst-Nichols said in an interview with Humanosphere. “Because you either ask to speak to the household head or another household representative who speaks on behalf of all people within the household.”

The report’s author, Bapu Vaitla, said that surveys, interviews and other conventional forms of data collection are also limited by biases before the information is even collected.

“Conventional datasets are relatively small in size, with the number of variables and observations predetermined by the purpose of data collection,” Vaitla said to Humanosphere. “Big data, meanwhile is digital ​in origin – usually passively collected as ‘exhaust’ from our interactions with digital technologies like computers and phones.”

Over the last several years, Furst-Nichols said, analysts have become increasingly keen on utilizing macrodata from cell phones and other forms of technology. The push for big data has also appeared in development and humanitarian circles, as seen with the use of cell phone data to predict the spread of Ebola during West Africa’s outbreak in 2014.

However, Data2X argued that big data isn’t yet being utilized to its full potential. Now that more than three quarters of the world’s people have access to cell phones, gender data experts said it is easier than ever to access critical information on women and girls that surveys at the household level are not picking up.

One example described in the report addresses the lack of gendered information on mental illness. Women and girls are more likely to experience mental illness when affected by poverty and inequality, according to the report, but most available data on the mental health burden is not broken down by gender, especially in the developing world.

Many women and girls will self-disclose symptoms of mental illness through posts on social media accounts, however, which the report said can be used to help identify mental illness in these populations with a high degree of accuracy. Such information may be especially useful following recessions, natural disasters and other shocks, the authors said.

The report demonstrates multiple ways in which big data collection can occur in almost any corner of the world: credit transactions were successfully used to determine patterns of economic activity among women and girls in Latin America’s most crowded cities, and satellite imagery was used to improve existing data on girls’ stunting, women’s literacy and access to modern contraception.

While Furst-Nichols said big data has the potential to help fill the global gender data gap, it cannot replace traditional sources of data. The flood of information could even mistakenly shift policy focus toward the groups and regions for which the most information is available, she said, and not the people and places in greatest need.

“That is a way that a lot of people think,” Furst-Nichols said. “They’re thinking … what can we use these novel data sources for? But we really want to drive the question of what we need to know, and how these data sources can help us. And most of the time, it takes more than one data source to give us the answer to these questions.”


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at