Gender equality report: an example of how big data can address big problems

For the 'No Ceilings' report, researchers collected 850,000 gender-related data points over a 20-year period from the UN, World Bank, and other organizations to measure progress.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Gates Foundation co-chair Melinda Gates speaks during a Gates Foundation event in New York, March 9, 2015. The 'No Ceilings Full Participation' report, a collaboration between the Gates Foundation and the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, assesses opportunities for women and girls over the past two decades.

The status of women and girls has improved substantially since 1995, but there is still a lot of work to be done, states a new report released Monday.

The "No Ceilings" report, published through collaboration between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, is a treasure-trove of information about gender development worldwide. It found, for example, that almost two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults, 496 million people, are women. On a brighter note, it calculated that maternal mortality has decreased by 42 percent since 1995, with South Asia making the biggest advances.

To arrive at such conclusions, researchers collected 850,000 gender-related data points over a 20-year period from the United Nations, the World Bank, and other research and nonprofit organizations. Given that scope, the report’s release marks a turning point for nonprofits and development organizations, as they increasingly use big-data analysis to solve problems, measure progress, and provide comprehensive information to others.

“Until now, the data it's gathered was siloed in diffuse databases. Now, it’s all housed on, where anyone from a curious individual to a government agency can dig into the details on a country-by-country or issue-by-issue level,” wrote Issie Lapowsky for Wired.

As technology becomes ubiquitous, more organizations are using big data analytics to identify the scope of specific problems and find empirical evidence about which solutions work, experts say.

“There is a push for organizations to use data in their work and develop innovative ways to respond more quickly to disasters and problems,” says Lillian Pierson, founder of Data-Mania, an information services start-up.

“Traditional development companies are now using data in their work. The idea of data for social good is becoming more popular,” confirms Kirk Borne, professor of astrophysics and computational science at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and a big-data science consultant. "Instead of just making decisions and hoping for the best, we are able to make optimal decisions, go down the right path instead of going down blind alleys."

In 2009, the UN launched Global Pulse, an initiative that aims to raise awareness about the opportunities for data scientists, governments, and development-sector practitioners to combine forces and use big data in their work. Its goal was to show policymakers how big-data tools and technologies could help them understand human well-being and emerging vulnerabilities in real time.

"From Amnesty International using digitized data from their Urgent Action alerts to predict and prevent future human rights violations to Crisis Text Line using text message data from individuals in crisis to provide customized care on a massive scale, nonprofits are increasingly looking for ways to use data to better understand and serve their communities to maximize their impact," Jake Porway, founder and executive director of the organization DataKind, wrote in an e-mail.  

Now, the Gates and Clinton foundations are combining existing data sets to assess what the UN and other organizations have achieved over the past two decades in the field of gender development. The report also makes a case for why investing in gender equality is important.

“Bringing all this data together in one place enables us to make the most powerful case ultimately for why investing in women and girls isn’t just the morally right thing to do, but the smart thing to do,” Chelsea Clinton told Wired. “The evidence really shows that where countries have invested in women and girls, societies are safer, and a rising tide really lifts all boats.”

But Ms. Clinton warns that developing countries need to begin to collect and analyze data on their own.

“We have to invest more in helping developing countries build their own data and analytics systems,” she told Wired. “Ultimately, we’re all trying to work ourselves out of a job, and that requires ensuring that not only are we able to measure our progress, but that we’re equipping our partner countries with the ability to measure their own.”

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