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Q&A: COVID-19 Means we Must Innovate Data Collection, Especially on Gender

Data is important in ensuring gender equality, and experts say as traditional means of data collection may no longer be possible under the current COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, this provides an opportunity to collect data in more innovative ways. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, May 5 2020 (IPS) - The current coronavirus pandemic can offer insight into how to shake-up traditional methods of data collection, and might provide an opportunity to do it in more innovative ways, in turn enhancing progress towards gender equality.

“Necessity is the mother of invention, and when you look at society’s crisis – whether that’s a health crisis or natural disaster or war – [they] really force us to think about the ways of working and whether or not they’re serving us well as a community,” Susan Papp, Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at Women Deliver, an international organisation advocating around the world for gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women, tells IPS.

The global pandemic has highlighted loopholes and dangers in traditional systems across the world: healthcare access, the economy, tools to address gender violence.

“Because things are moving so rapidly with COVID-19, it shows how important and how reliant we are as a society on data systems. And that our old ways of interacting with data are not sufficient to be able to protect our people, to make sure they are healthy,” she adds. 

Papp shared her thoughts just a few days after United Nations Women released a brief on how to collect data on violence against women and girls (VAWG) under the current circumstances, given heightened cases of domestic violence cases women and girls around the globe are facing. The brief also states that under the current circumstances, traditional means of data collection may no longer be possible.

Meanwhile, access is a huge issue for the collection of data since technology plays a key role in ensuring that information is communicated. In cases of VAWG, use of technology may exacerbate the situation with an abuser. 

These concerns highlight the need for accurate and important data, as well as the challenges posed in trying to attain them. IPS speaks with Papp on the importance of data in ensuring gender equality, as well as the challenges of the current methods being used — and how that can be changed in “innovative” ways. 

Inter Press Service (IPS): Why is accurate data collection important to ensure gender equality? 

Susan Papp (SP): A gender equal world is healthier, wealthier and more productive. We need to be able to have an understanding of the reality of women and girls in order to advance gender equality. We’ve seen that what gets measured has the best chance of getting done. And really reliable and timely gender specific data is crucial to that accountability. 

World leaders can make a lot of promises about creating a more gender equal world but without data you have no way of knowing whether those promises are part of reality. 

Furthermore, you need to be able to have that data to point where the gaps in services are and where the problems exist for girls and women. Because without that, policymakers are shooting in the dark. And you can’t have policies that are ill-informed and don’t portray the whole picture. 

Susan Papp is the Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at Women Deliver.

IPS: According to Women Deliver, only 13 percent of countries have a gender statistics budget. How could such a budget hold governments accountable in ensuring gender equality?

SP: It’s critical in the treatment of the SDGs that gender statistics are invested in, that statistical offices and divisons are able to collect data disaggregated by sex, with an intersectional lens. So, ideally, they would be starting to think about gender data that would look at questions around sexual orientation and sexual identity as well. 

Right now, there is a tremendous lack of information for non-binary gender identities. So how are they counted and how are their needs and realities reflected? 

Too often, [for] girls women and non-binary individuals, their needs are completely not reflected and in order to understand those needs, you need to have better data system. 

IPS: How does that apply to the current situation?

SP: What we need to do as a community is maybe be a little bit less purist in our approach to data collection methods and use a moment like COVID-19 as an opportunity to really innovate about collecting data in real time. And [to] find ways to verify that data that may not necessarily be as rigorous and as time consuming as the past mechanisms for verifying the data.  

IPS: What would being more innovative entail? 

SP: It’s examples as documented by the World Bank, or Bloomberg’s initiative in New York for contact-tracing, using GPS, credit card data to be able to track where you’ve been, whether or not you may have been in contact with someone who has the virus: that is the future and I think COVID-19 has really been an eye opening moment for us to recognise that the way we’ve been collecting data and information in the past is no longer serving our world well. 

IPS: In that sense, data collection can be conflated with compromising privacy, with women and gender non-binary people being especially vulnerable to it. Is there any conversation on that conflict?    

SP: Absolutely. And you’re starting to see some really good principles being developed and come out around this. 

A lot of the data that’s been collected historically on VAWG had been collected face to face. And now, a lot of that data needs to be collected virtually and leveraged through things like mobile phone platforms, phone hotlines. Some real principles have been set that have been very useful around safety, privacy and confidentiality around women’s responses, doing no harm, making sure that the data collectors have some sensitivity training and that they understand the ethical and safety principles that they need to hold. 

IPS: In terms of collecting data, what would you say is the main factor that poses an obstacle for government and local leaders?

SP: Data can be expensive to collect, and it can be really expensive to analyse. And I think the lack of investment in data is one thing that needs to be resolved. Second, a lot of really amazing data do exist, but the problem may lie in understanding how to access and use that data in a way that’s ethically responsible, in a way that protects the identity of people, so that it’s still useful yet anonymised. 

A lot of the processes, though very brilliant and important work by the U.N., need to be reconsidered. The world is moving at a much more rapid pace than it was before and [we need to think about] how to reconcile the very puristic standard data collection and analysis methods and usability with some of the more emerging needs with open data.

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