Using big data to highlight digital inequalities

Technology promises progress – but who are we leaving behind?

The work of Professor Ridhi Kashyap and Professor Ingmar Weber repurposes data streams from social media to highlight digital gender inequalities around the world.

In seeking to study the social impacts of global digital transformations, Professor Kashyap discovered that many population-level social surveys and censuses rarely collect data on digital connectivity. “In low and middle income countries in particular, there is very little data on digital connectivity by individual characteristics like age and gender,” explains Professor Kashyap. “How can we study the potential of technologies when we don't even know who is accessing them and how they're using them?”

Most major social media platforms gather demographic data about their users to help advertisers target their audiences more effectively. Working together with Professor Ingmar Weber (formerly Qatar Computer Research Institute, now Saarland University), a computer scientist specialising in non-traditional data sources, she identified these social media marketing data streams as having potential to plug the gap by providing demographic information that revealed more about who was going online, and where.

Using this data source, Professor Kashyap and Professor Weber worked together to produce the resource, which shows real time estimates of mobile and internet connectivity gender gaps across the world. This work shows how women in the countries of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are much less likely to be online or own mobile phones.

“Without evidence of what’s happening, you can’t take action”

The team’s work has brought them to the attention of a number of international bodies, including UNICEF, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), The Web Foundation, and the Gates Foundation.

“Ingmar and I have had conversations with multiple organisations who have realised there is this data gap and didn’t know you could access social media data as a source,” says Professor Kashyap. “There are many use cases. For example with GSMA, a mobile consortium that represents the interests of mobile networks and providers, they might want to know whose digital connectivity is being impacted by mobile taxes, and whether these impacts vary by gender. For that you need high frequency data, so you can look at how things are affected over time.”

In 2018, Professor Kashyap gave a presentation at the UN Foundation in New York, which led to the team connecting with UNICEF. The agency was interested in learning more about the digital behaviours of girls under the age of 18, an area where there was very little existing data.

“There's a whole community around closing the gender gap in the adult women’s space,” says Alex Tyers-Chowdhury (Gender and Technology Specialist, UNICEF). “We need to do something for girls as well. But without evidence of what’s happening, you can’t take action.

At UNICEF, our aim is to get people to care about the topic by sharing insights and working with others to publish more data.”

The team at UNICEF worked with Professor Kashyap and Professor Weber to produce the report ‘Using Big Data for Insights Into the Gender Digital Divide for Girls’.

“The report has received a lot of interest, we’ve had a lot of people reaching out,” says Alex. “There are a lot of people in this space that we need to influence, and the credentials and academic gravitas that Ridhi and Ingmar bring is invaluable. We’re in conversations with them to do further work together. Hopefully this is just the beginning.”

Building in impact from the start

Professor Kashyap and Professor Weber are now hoping to use the infrastructure they’ve created to perform more focused, sub-national analysis. They are in conversation with partners to see how they can shape their data collection and analysis around specific needs, for greater impact.

“At the moment the work is attention-raising,” Professor Weber explains. “Now we would like to be a bit more on the ground. If an organisation is planning an intervention, we would love to support their planning and targeting, to help them make a real difference.”

“Whereas before we were filling a data gap for research and innovation, now we are guided by our stakeholders in making the work relevant and useful,” Professor Kashyap says. “I now think of knowledge exchange as a part of the pipeline of research development, and also research accountability. It shouldn’t just be something at the end, it should be an integral part of the process. It’s time well worth investing.”

The UNICEF report ‘‘Using Big Data for Insights Into the Gender Digital Divide for Girls’