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Is the big data revolution leaving those most vulnerable to climate change behind?

Natalie ElwellandElizabeth Moses|

A few years ago, the World Meteorological Organization held a conference on women and climate information services.  A significant number of the event’s discussions centered around the promise of smart phone applications to put weather, climate and agricultural data into the hands of rural farmers, equipping hard-to-reach communities with the information they need to make more informed decisions about their crops and lifting them out of poverty. In theory, such strategies sound plausible. Access to mobile phones continues to expand rapidly across sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world. Cell phones can disseminate information across multiple formats, such as texts, voice calls, videos, pictures, or numbers.  They can connect urban centers and rural villages, providing new avenues for communities to share financial resources, healthcare, educational information, agricultural extension services, and government assistance.

But in reality, few rural farmers have cell phones, let alone smart phones. Even fewer women have access to this new technology. According to a 2015 report by GSMA, more than 1.7 billion women in low- and middle-income countries do not own mobile phones. Globally, women are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men—a gap that translates into 200 million fewer women owning mobiles than men. This gap widens in South Asia, where women are 38% less likely to own a phone than men. Even in more urban areas—those targeted by applications for early warning systems that could help mitigate the devastating impacts of natural disasters—data remains largely inaccessible to poor women.  

Even for those who do obtain cell phones, unreliable access to electricity to charge the phone and limited cash to buy data poise ongoing challenges to poor communities and disproportionately affect women. According to Energia, women in these rural and semi-urban areas are less likely have access to energy than men.  This disparity is often due to women’s under-representation in decisions about energy policies and technologies, which often fail to meet their needs and may even increase their energy-production burden.

The World Energy Outlook estimates that in 2016 1.2 billion people – 16% of the global population – did not have access to electricity. Even greater numbers endure unreliable electricity service. Progress made towards universal electrification remains uneven, reaching urban centers at a greater rate than rural communities. Today, 80% of those living without energy access reside in rural areas, and sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia, regions arguably most vulnerable to climate change, contain 95% of those living without electricity.  

Beyond limited cell phone and energy access, the cultural practices of many rural communities often leave women without the same access to information as men due limited access to education, male dominance of radios and televisions, the tendency of rural extension agents to associate with men, and women’s restricted mobility, which affords them less time in markets and social spaces where they might obtain information by word of mouth.  

These social factors indicate that expanding access to information alone may not be effective if poor, marginalized women are unable to express their needs, understand climate data, and utilize this information to adapt to climate change and participate in land use decision making.

The Open Government Partnership’s (OGP) support for initiatives using big data and technological interventions to disseminate data neglects to address the fact that rural farmers, who are disproportionately affected by the impacts of extreme weather events from a changing climate, are increasingly out of reach of life-changing and life-saving information as the data revolution overlooks the challenges of accessing data. Increasing poor women’s access to smart phones has the potential to greatly improve their agricultural productivity as well as their ability to mitigate and reduce the impact of disasters, but the data revolution may not have the radical impact on transparent, accountable and responsive governance that is strives for if it ignores the social context that may hinder the effective and equitable distribution of information.

OGP could better contribute to reducing poverty and advancing gender equality, which will ultimately ensure its work contributes to poverty reduction and gender equality, by promoting the tailoring of climate data in OGP commitments and action plans to provide the types of information needed by women through means accessible to them.

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