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An Introduction to Gender and Open Data

Published onDec 28, 2019
An Introduction to Gender and Open Data

Why Gender Justice and Open Data?

The Open Data Handbook published by the Open Knowledge Foundation defines open data as data “that can be freely used, re-used and distributed by anyone - subject only, as most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike.”1 The primary objective of opening data is to decentralise knowledge and hold institutions accountable.

The Handbook further describes the most important aspects of open data as: availability and access in a “convenient and modifiable form”, re-use and redistribution in a manner that allows interoperability, and universal participation without any restrictions on usage by any persons or for any purpose.2 Open data bolsters transparency and accountability of public and private institutions by opening up their processes and practices to public scrutiny. It also provides critical input into policy design and service delivery.3

Open data has been used to support advocacy efforts in many different fields of governance, such as urban sanitation and transportation, health and nutrition, access to food and drinking water, crime and violence, and employment.4 It also supports efforts to protect the rights and freedoms of marginalised groups. A cross-cutting theme across all these fields is gender justice. Cisgender heteronormative men have more power and capital as compared to women and non-binary people, which leads to differential access to services and opportunities. Further, the needs of and barriers faced by women and non-binary people are incremental and different to those faced by men.

A variety of initiatives using or advocating for open data have come to focus on gendered data to understand these differences and account for them in policy design. These can contribute to achieving gender justice in various ways – primarily by a) supporting and directing advocacy efforts through evidential data, and b) shaping implementation of various programmes by identifying gaps in access to women and non-gender binary persons. Additionally, feminist understanding of data, how approaches to data collection and use relates to social justice and equity are valuable inputs to the open data community itself.5

Intersectionality in Open Data

Income, geographical location (between rural and urban regions, border and mainland, high income and low income countries), age, literacy and education levels, ethnicity, and (dis)ability significantly impact an individuals a) meaningful access to infrastructure and connectivity, b) digital literacy that mediates use of open data, and c) representation in datasets that draw on digital footprints. Women living in rural areas, poor women, older women, indignous women and those with low levels of literacy and education, are thus doubly or triply disadvantaged. Populations living in rural areas in Asia constitute a large majority of those that remain unconnected with the internet globally.6 The impact of income on connectivity is evident from existing data - despite South Asia having the most affordable mobile broadband rates in the Global South, data remains unaffordable for the poorest 20 percent of the population.7

Lack of disaggregated data is also more likely to affect women from intersectional marginalities, as relevant social characteristics are rarely disaggregated in data. This represents a missed opportunity for quantitative data to represent intersectional correlations that impact marginalised groups.8 For instance, despite being one of the most at-risk groups to climate change, women from indigenous communities continue to be left out of plans and responses to climate change and food security.9 Among other factors, this stems from the paucity of data on climate change that disaggregates impact by gender and ethnicity.10 To use another example, national statistics on gender-based violence rarely disaggregate by (dis)ability, which invisiblises the heightened vulnerability of women with mental and physical impairments to partner and non-partner violence.11

A Short History of Gender Justice and Open Data

Gender justice is still an “emerging issue” in the open data space.12 Brandusescu and Nwakanma (2019) characterise gender-based work as existing in a silo in this space, despite initial efforts to mainstream considerations of gender and intersectionality across projects.13 Lack of attention to gender in the open data field has had three interrelated consequences - open data has historically been a male-dominated masculinised space, work on open data has largely been gender-blind, and there are few overlaps between groups working on women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights and open data.

Over the last few years, work on gender justice and open data has gathered more attention, even becoming the central topic of discussion at open data convenings. A list of significant convenings addressing gender, and a regional breakdown of prominent organisations and initiatives in the field of gender justice and open data can be found in a chapter discussing gender equity in State of Open Data.14 Some of the notable initiatives globally are also listed in this introduction. The range of initiatives aim to intervene at different points - in the design of open data projects, which refers to data collection and analysis, as well as in the production and use of data by marginalised groups.

A glaring gap in gender-based initiatives by and large is the treatment of gender as binary. Since a majority of the literature on the subject treats gender as binary and women as the primary group at the receiving end of gender injustice, this handbook tends to retain this binary language. We strongly advocate for open data initiatives to be more responsible towards gender and sexual minorities. Accordingly, an article in the handbook specifically focuses on gaps in data on non-gender binary people and the consequences of such gaps.

The siloed approach of open data initiatives to gender also implies that there are few initiatives which are intersectional in their approach to data analysis. Initiatives in the fields of governance, land use, disaster management, water, health and sanitation, transportation, and other sectors, rarely focus on gender unless as part of gender-specific initiatives. Gender-focused initiatives largely treat gender independently from other social characteristics, and therefore fail to accurately capture correlations between variables, as well as differences across different groups of women.

About this Handbook

This handbook stems from the recognition that gender must be a key aspect of open data initiatives to hold institutions accountable and measure progress of development indicators. The fields of open data and gender justice can greatly benefit from collaborative work due to these common goals. This handbook aims to spur such collaboration by discussing priority areas, existing work, and challenges in the use of open data for achieving gender justice. It collates important literature, initiatives and organisations in the space. In addition to ongoing work and literature on open data, we also engage with critical approaches to data and feminist epistemology to move away from the treatment of open data as a “black box” and ground it in its sociotechnical context.15 The handbook is divided into 9 articles that cover the most notable areas of work at the intersection of open data and gender:

  1. Gender Dynamics in Open Data Initiatives

The first article in this handbook discusses the manifestation of gender in the open data space. It highlights major themes from personal narrative accounts written by women in open data, which describe the impact gendered discrimination has on the way they navigate this space.

  1. Non-binary gender and data

This article summarises the major debates and practices in the quantification (or lack thereof) of gender and sexual minorities. Quantitative datasets, whether in the form of official statistics, identification systems, or consumer data held by corporations tend to code gender as a binary. This has severe implications for the representation of non-binary people in policy agendas, and their access to welfare programmes mediated through data.

  1. Indigenous Women and Data

Historically, indigenous people and women, in particular, have been marginalised from state-led development. While open data initiatives have contributed to producing data that is inclusive of indigenous people, mechanisms to accurately record these socially and culturally diverse groups are needed at local/national/regional scales to measure and support the progress towards the realisation of their rights, including but not limited to data rights of indigenous peoples.

  1. Gender Data Gap

Women and the issues that concern women are under-represented in datasets, leading to a global gender data gap. It is often difficult to quantify the extent to which different areas of governance are gendered because of the lack of gendered data. This article discusses the global gender data gap, laying down the challenges and priority areas in producing such data.

  1. Access and use barriers for women in open data

A central aspect of opening data is ensuring its use by relevant stakeholders, which includes those who are represented in the data. Women, especially poor women and those with other disadvantages, face barriers in accessing digital tools that mediate use of open data. This article lays down some of the foremost barriers in digital access for women in the Global South.

  1. Bridging the gender data gap

Several initiatives from civil society and government bodies have been aimed at producing more and better gender open data. Notable areas of work in this domain include use of feminist methods for open data, responsible data use, and using big data to closing the data gap. This article details such initiatives along with the challenges faced in using some of these techniques.

  1. Gender Indicators for Monitoring Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The SDGs have provided a critical platform for channeling efforts on global development, including on gender justice. This article goes over initiatives that have used SDGs to fill the gender data gap, as well as the challenges that arise in this process.

  1. Participatory Methods in Open Data

Intersectional feminist approaches to participatory mapping and data collection practices are crucial to consider when aiming to generate data that is relevant to women and other marginalised groups. Such methods are instrumental in producing data that is relevant to local realities and involves user groups at the stage of collection. Moreover, these methods highlight the important of carefully addressing and resolving concerns of privacy, safety, sovereignty, and ownership of data while working with marginalised groups.

  1. Feminist Open Government

Feminist Open Government has emerged as a response to the gender-blindness of the Open Government Partnership. In this article, we write about the role played by civil society and international development actors in addressing gender and other marginalities in the open government space.

Notable Global Initiatives on Gender Justice and Open Data

Data2x: Hosted by the United Nations Foundation, it is a technical and advocacy platform, that works to improve the availability, quality and use of gender data to make practical difference in the lives of women and girls worldwide.

Open Government Partnership: Formally launched on September 20, 2011 by 8 heads of state in the UN General Assembly meeting.16 It is a global, multi-stakeholder effort to make governments better. It aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to drive open government reform and innovation at the country level

Open Heroines: Open Heroine is a blog and the public alias of a group of women who first met at the 2015 Open Government Partnership Conference. This culminated into a slack team which is currently at 600 members in 2019, who work in the field of open government, open data and civil tech.17

Sustainable Development Goals: A set of 17 goals were adopted by members of the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030. 18

Feminist Open Government Initiative: aims to use research and action to encourage governments and civil society to champion new initiatives leading to gender advancements in open government.19 The initiative began as a priority of the 2018-2019 OGP co-chairmanship of Nathaniel Heller of Results for Development and the Government of Canada.20 Their initial research which included case studies from 14 nations was published in May 2019, 21 and their second round of report will be released in Fall 2019.22

World Wide Web Foundation: The World Wide Web Foundation leads several initiatives to close the digital gender gap, as well as ensure safe and meaningful digital access to women globally.23 It also publishes the Open Data Barometer annually, which measures the use of open data by governments along different indicators, including the openness of gender data.24

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