“Big Data” is an umbrella term referring to the large amounts of digital data continually generated as a by-product of everyday interactions with digital products or services. Big data is often characterized by its great volume, variety, lack of structure, and high rate of velocity. Information on women and girls can be derived from big data sources as diverse as cell phones, remote sensors, and internet activity. Analysis of cell phone data usage patterns can inform understanding about women’s socioeconomic welfare, mobility patterns, and financial activity. Remote sensors can help reveal epidemiological trends of concern to women and provide information on access to markets, schools, clinics, and other essential services. Internet use, especially the expression of thoughts and emotions on social media platforms, can offer insights into a wide variety of topics related to women’s welfare, including mental health, women’s political engagement, and societal attitudes about gender roles.[1]

Why it matters

There is great excitement about the role of big data in development, yet there are few examples demonstrating what big data can and cannot achieve, and efforts to date have rarely addressed gender questions. Effective use of big data in development policymaking and advocacy could improve the lives of women and girls by resulting in more efficient services and programs. However, both more research and technology development are needed to fulfill this potential and ensure that women are not underrepresented in big data. In addition, new institutional norms and safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that big data does not pose more risks and harms to women and girls, particularly with respect to individual privacy and irresponsible handling of sensitive datasets.

Partnering with Data2X

In March 2017, Data2X released the flagship report, “Big Data and the Well-Being of Women and Girls,” a summary of pilot projects led by UN Global Pulse and individual academic researchers which explored how different sources of big data can close global gender data gaps. The projects demonstrated how satellite imagery, call detail records, credit cards, and social media can improve understanding of the needs of girls and women, and the partnership is a springboard for future big data for development efforts to ensure that gender remains at the forefront of this nascent field.

In May 2017, Data2X announced the Big Data for Gender Challenge, which called on researchers to propose innovative ways to use big data sources to fill gender data gaps. Data2X selected 10 projects to receive awards, and announced the Big Data for Gender Challenge award winners in September 2017.

Partnership Products

[1] See A Landscape of Big Data for Development.