Washington, DC - March 8 is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the economic, social, cultural, political, and agricultural achievements of women all around the world. This year’s theme is #PressforProgress, a call to women everywhere to unite against gender inequality.

Women play a critical role in agricultural systems and global food security; according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), women make up 43 percent of the agricultural workforce in developing countries and two-thirds of the world’s 600 million subsistence livestock farmers. Gender inequality, therefore, has a significant impact on global agricultural development. In countries where agriculture is the primary source of income, women are frequently barred from owning land and have restricted access to critical resources like seeds, equipment, and credit. The FAO has found that if women had the same access to land and resources as men, overall food production could increase up to 30 percent—enough to feed 150 million of the estimated 815 million people who are suffering from hunger in the world.

While there is significant funding and the political will to address gender inequality in agriculture, a fundamental problem is a lack of data. Recently, the United Nations released an interim report on the progress of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to gender equality, stressing the data gaps that persist. In the SDGs, gender equality is one of the seventeen goals as well as an objective necessary for achieving many of the other goals, including zero hunger. Reliable data is at the center of these development projects and has the power to cast light on the individuals and communities affected by gender inequality.

Innovative tools for large-scale data collection and analytics known as Big Data are providing researchers with unprecedented opportunities to conduct studies and collect and analyze agricultural data. Big Data tools allow researchers to process larger datasets and collect data from new sources like cell phone usage and social media. CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) has developed a new Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, which incorporates Big Data tools into the work of their 15 research centers and 12 research programs to produce actionable insights at a faster pace, a lower cost, and a larger scale. By leveraging the mobile phone revolution, satellite imaging, and meta-analysis of massive social, health, and economic datasets, the Platform can provide creative approaches to research on gender equality in agriculture.

Producing sex-disaggregated data remains a primary challenge for research on gender equality issues. Currently, many major data collection projects do not distinguish between male and female respondents, which would be an effective protocol to significantly increase insights on gender equality. For this reason, the CGIAR Big Data Platform is building a partnership with the CGIAR Gender Research Platform to ensure that gender is embedded into the Big Data collection methods and that the results of these Big Data projects are useful to gender researchers.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is one CGIAR’s research centers and a co-leader, along with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), of the Big Data Platform as well as a leader in global research on gender equality in agriculture. In 2012, through a partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Feed the Future initiative, IFPRI launched the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) to establish a standardized method for measuring gender equality around the world. Dr. Agnes Quisumbing, a Senior Fellow at IFPRI and a researcher on gender and agriculture, has seen the WEAI go from being a limited research method to a valuable tool for data collection. “When the WEAI started it was supposed to be used in just the 19 Feed the Future countries in order to monitor women’s inclusion in the initiative,” Quisumbing says. “By 2017, the WEAI had been adopted in 49 different countries by 69 separate organizations.” Through the WEAI, researchers in the field of gender equality and agriculture have a unifying methodology for collecting data and implementing programs on this issue.

One of the strengths of the WEAI is its adaptability. The index is composed of five domains of women’s empowerment—production, resources, income, leadership, and time—and it incorporates a gender parity index that measures the relative empowerment of women compared to their male partners within households. “The WEAI has many uses. As a diagnostic tool, it can be broken out into its component indicators. The extent of empowerment can be looked at in each domain, and this is useful for designing targeted interventions,” says Quisumbing. Big Data tools could be applied to these empowerment domains of the WEAI in ways that can produce more consistent and reliable data.

Time allocation is one of the domains that is seen as particularly challenging for women’s empowerment. In many communities, women are expected to be the primary caretakers in addition to their farming responsibilities, and the time allocated for domestic work limits their agricultural productivity. The WEAI measures time allocation using two indicators: hours spent on agricultural and domestic work, and satisfaction with the amount of available leisure time. Researchers could design a voluntary quantitative study in which female farmers directly measure the number of hours they spend working per day using a mobile phone or a wearable sensor, even going so far as to identify whether the activity is related to farming or to domestic work.

In addition to time allocation, land ownership is another major barrier to women’s empowerment in agriculture. Due to cultural norms or informal land tenancy agreements, female farmers are often unable to own the land that they are farming. Satellite imagery is a Big Data tool that could be employed to map female land ownership across a region and to produce a meta-analysis that overlays land ownership data with large existing datasets for important health and social indicators. Dr. Jawoo Kim, a co-founder of the Big Data Platform, is a Senior Fellow at IFPRI who specializes in geospatial data and modeling analysis: “Remote sensing imagery data from satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used to map the boundary of farm fields and their characteristics, such as crop types and production yield. By linking with sex-disaggregated household-level data, this farm-level geospatial data can provide objective, timely, and rich contextual information across multiple domains.” Most importantly, Big Data tools would offer the capacity to conduct such studies at a large scale with massive data through automated, algorithmic analysis. The use of meta-analysis could be a very powerful tool for providing very specific examples of how women’s empowerment in agriculture leads to broader societal improvements.

An issue as complex as gender equality is best understood through the lens of human-centered studies on a local level to gain a clear, accurate understanding of cultural norms and perceptions. Previously, this kind of data has been collected through surveys administered to a community person by person. Technology like mobile phones has introduced a new access point for data collection. The question remains, however, whether this technology will improve gender equality or exacerbate the gender divide. This is another reason why sex-disaggregated data is essential to projects related to gender equality and highlights the importance of the partnership between the Big Data Platform and the Gender Research Platform.

With Big Data tools, there are opportunities to develop methods to look at this issue in new, more efficient ways. The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture is working to methodically incorporate these exciting tools into their research to open up greater possibilities for the future of gender equality in agriculture.