Facebook announces gender data plans, nudges tech companies to follow suit

Photo by: Shop Catalog / Flickr / CC BY

MISSOULA, Mont. — Facebook is being “proactive and just a bit conservative” as it identifies what role it can play to help bridge gender data gaps, according to Anna Lerner Nesbitt, program manager of global impact for data and artificial intelligence at Facebook.

On Tuesday, the social media giant announced Project 17, an initiative that takes a partnership approach to help drive progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. For the past six months, the Project 17 team has been conducting roundtables with groups such as Data2x and Girl Effect — conversations that have led to new ideas about how Facebook’s platform can apply its unique scale and reach to gender data, Nesbitt said.

31% of the data required to monitor progress for women and girls is available today.

UN Women

So far, the research has confirmed the need for a dual strategy.

“We think of it as both leveraging and creating datasets and data insights and maps … but also to invest in the ecosystem,” Nesbitt said. “Doubling the amount of data that’s out there is not necessarily going to double the amount of impact that it has. So you need to do a lot of capacity building and a lot of investment in the industry to make sure that people have the right skills and ability to make use of these new resources.”

Traditional data sources have been insufficient in capturing the lives of girls and women, insights that are critical for effective policymaking and to reach the SDGs. UN Women estimates that only 31% of the data required to monitor progress for women and girls is available today, although gender data gaps also reach far beyond those identified in the United Nations SDG indicator framework.

To jump-start its work to provide access to real-time, representative data, Facebook will first provide gender-based breakdowns of some of its existing Data for Good work. Its displacement maps, for example, already share real-time data on population movement with humanitarian response agencies, helping to determine community-specific needs in times of crisis. Upon consulting with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, the Project 17 team now understands that sex-disaggregated data could help humanitarian aid agencies do an even better job of meeting the needs of communities.

But an excess of gender data gaps — such as those that exist on sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian contexts — doesn’t mean big tech players are best placed to help close them. To learn more, Facebook partnered with Ladysmith, a feminist research consultancy, to produce a new report identifying areas where tech companies can most successfully help strengthen gender data.

Not all tech companies necessarily have their own datasets they are ready to share, but they might offer other unique skill sets and abilities, which is why “we’re kind of nudging fellow technology companies to pay additional attention to the space and hopefully join us in doing more specifically around gender data gaps,” Nesbitt said.

The report found there are several ways in which unconventional or big data could supplement the traditional surveys and censuses that form the backbone of public policymaking. Social network data could complement household surveys, for example, by providing insight into income sharing and remittances, especially in a context when adult children in one household care for elder parents in another, or during migration, where many families are stretched across borders.

Another insight that emerged from the report was the need for increased communication between gender equality advocates and tech players — particularly around data privacy, according to Tara Cookson, director of Ladysmith and lead author of the report.

In discussions with tech sector professionals during her research, Cookson heard several instances when progress on a joint project stalled because a gender and development organization asked the tech company to completely open its data.

“Tech companies need to do a lot more to explain in these conversations about the kinds of data they have, where they’ve made progress on preserving privacy, and where they haven't yet,” she said, adding that gender organizations often don’t have a full understanding of the terms under which data might be responsibly shared, and what other data-relevant resources the tech community might be in a position to make available.

For Facebook, gender data efforts could range from a new layer of data on a map, to survey findings, to open-source datasets in order to ensure the company is engaging in areas where the gender and development community thinks they could add value, Nesbitt said.

In partnership with the World Bank Group and Equal Measures 2030, the social media company also plans to harness its analytic capabilities to run a global survey focused on gender equality. It will use the model of its “Future of Business” survey which, in partnership with the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, surveys small businesses around the world on Facebook. The upcoming gender equality survey topic and questions have not yet been finalized.

Facebook also plans to work with the Institute for Technology and Social Change, or TechChange, to develop a free online course about the ways unconventional datasets can be used in gender and development projects, a resource that smaller NGOs wishing to get involved in the space could benefit from.

Ladysmith’s Cookson wants to see more of an openness to the kinds of questions that unconventional data can help the development community answer, especially as more tech players come on board.

“Social media data is not going to replace household surveys. You can complement them, though. I think there needs to be a little bit more creative thinking … and for me, this is a lot about communication gaps, and this is why we talk a lot about actors that don’t often sit at the same table, but really need to,” Cookson 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 has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. 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 reported from more than 20 countries.