A new experiment will direct data at crowdsourced gender questions

Photo by: @anniespratt on Unsplash

MISSOULA, Mont. — As the burden of care increases in the home, the COVID-19 pandemic is raising important questions about women’s unpaid care work. It’s a gap in gender data likely to be explored by a new initiative, which seeks to map the world’s most high-impact questions that could be answered by leveraging relevant datasets.

“We identify and curate expertise in society that, if we would be able to connect them, we would tap into that collective intelligence in order to provide insight.”

— Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer, GovLab

The 100 Questions Initiative, launched last year, is currently focused on the domains of gender, migration, air quality, disinformation, and the future of work — with the goal of bringing the right partners together to address tough, but answerable, questions within each of them.

The work stems from the frustration of Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer at New York-based action research center Governance Laboratory, or GovLab, which leads the project. Despite the potential of private sector data, its impact has been limited — primarily because many groups across the nonprofit and development sectors don’t fully understand how it can best be used, Verhulst said, but also because efforts are rarely driven by demand.

“There's no shortage of panels, no shortage of discussions about, ‘What can we do with the data from banks?’ or, ‘What can we do with the data that statistical agencies have?’ But never really is there any focus on, ‘So we have the data, but what is the question that really matters?’” Verhulst said.

Each time he participated in such a discussion, Verhulst remarked that instead of having 100 datasets, he’d rather see 100 questions that could be answered with data, he told Devex. Now, with partners such as the International Organization for Migration, Data2X, and the World Resources Institute, GovLab has embarked on the process to identify these dilemmas.

To explore which questions deserve attention, the initiative counts on the expertise of about 100 practitioners for each domain. These “bilinguals”— who possess both subject and data science expertise and are sourced from universities, think tanks, NGOs, and U.N. agencies — contribute questions and eventually rank them to identify a top 10.

Bringing together these voices in what Verhulst considers “smarter crowdsourcing” is just as important as coming up with the questions, he said.

“We identify and curate expertise in society that, if we would be able to connect them, we would tap into that collective intelligence in order to provide insight,” he said.

Technical and advocacy platform Data2X, which is partnering with GovLab on the gender domain and all other topic areas to ensure a gender lens, has long prioritized bridging gender data gaps by leveraging private sector data to inform decisions around gender.

“But this is interesting because it’s the way that we've talked about Data2X since the beginning … trying to bring together data people and gender people and find ways for those conversations to happen in an easier fashion,” said Emily Courey Pryor, executive director at Data2X.

The top 10 questions determined by bilinguals for each area are then opened up for public voting to determine the three that GovLab and partners will pursue first. With 118 votes, “What policies, evidence and programs (can) de-polarize public debate or reduce anti-immigrant sentiment?” tops the question list for the migration domain, the furthest along of the current topic areas.

The idea is to eventually tackle all of the questions, but GovLab wanted to start somewhere and design a transparent process with plenty of input along the way.

“This is radical. It sounds pretty straightforward, but … those types of questions, typically, are developed without really any transparency, any co-creation, because quite often actually it's more competition among certain experts,” Verhulst said.

“It resonates with a lot of people because it's a way to change the conversation from the data to the questions.”

— Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer, GovLab

This question-led approach is what attracted Data2X to partner on The 100 Questions Initiative, according to Courey Pryor.

“It’s a really interesting and important way of thinking about the challenge of gender data. Mapping data gaps is undoubtedly important, but equally important is to think about: Where is the demand for this information? What are the kinds of questions that cannot be answered because we don’t have the data to answer them?” she said.

Though the gender domain questions are still in the process of being determined, Courey Pryor is anticipating a focus on women’s economic opportunity and political participation, as well as the gendered effect of digitization on the future of work.

“I think another thing that is for sure coming up — and I think will certainly be very apropos to the moment in which we find ourselves now — is on balancing paid and unpaid work. I think we are all living that reality at the moment,” Courey Pryor said.

The top 10 gender questions will be released for public voting at the end of April. Verhulst is optimistic about early engagement with the initiative and is currently exploring dedicated domains around food, urban mobility, and mental health. The GovLab team is also looking into a domain dedicated to COVID-19 and pandemics, he said.

Verhulst said he doesn’t just want to identify the questions but aims to spur useful partnerships to match data and answer them. Domain owners, such as Data2X, will work with GovLab once questions are identified to pull together new data collaboratives, a form of public-private partnership that leverages data held by private sector entities in an ethical manner.

“It resonates with a lot of people because it's a way to change the conversation from the data to the questions. And obviously by the end of the day, you need both,” Verhulst said.

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.