How to Close the Digital Gender Gap: Lessons from Open Cities Africa

By Mira Gupta, Emma Phillips, and Vivien Deparday

This article was originally published on World Bank Digital Development. Français

A team member in Zanzibar explains the mapping process to local children in a project community.

When disasters strike, local government leaders and humanitarian organizations look to data to inform their responses. Maps can provide a snapshot of the people exposed to the disaster, the extent of the damage, and the places important to the community such as schools and health centers. In the recovery phase, maps also support more inclusive and resilient urban planning, which can enhance quality of life and improve the way cities function.

Since its launch in 2018, Open Cities Africa has worked with communities in 16 cities to collect open risk information through participatory mapping. Data collected has been used to develop digital and paper-based tools to inform local government decision-making around flood risk, coastal erosion, solid waste management and urban upgrading.

Who Makes the Map?

What happens though when these types of maps are disproportionately created by men? Features that are important to women such as market areas, safe spaces like shelters, or gender-specific services may not be included on the map. Or roads or pathways identified may not reflect the routes that women feel safe using. Maps provide access and power. Whoever makes the map often determines what is featured on the map; and if those features are biased towards the needs and interests of a specific group, it can ultimately skew emergency response and urban development. The lack of women engaged in digital projects such as mapping has tangible consequences and can run the risk of worsening inequalities.

Members of the Open Cities Ngaoundéré
team. Photo Credit: ACAGER

Closing the Digital Gender Gap

Open Cities Africa tried to better understand why it is difficult for women to take part in digital participatory mapping projects. Previous knowledge-sharing events suggested that some challenges could be due to how projects are framed. Based on these insights, teams were asked to consult with community members to identify barriers that made it difficult for women to engage (see below), and then actively address some of them through their projects.

  • Socialization – Women tend to develop skills that support domestic responsibilities, while men are encouraged to explore their surroundings and learn how things work. One project community noted that technology is a man’s domain and that women are taught not to do men’s work.
  • Lack of Education – In many of our project locations men had more educational opportunities than women. Gaps in literacy levels and knowledge of technology make it difficult for some women to engage.
  • Lack of Decision-Making Authority – Women in our project communities are under more strict supervision by their parents or spouses. They have less freedom of movement and often need to obtain permission to participate in extracurricular activities.
  • Responsibilities at Home – There are expectations that women need to spend the majority of their time on household chores such as a cooking, cleaning and caring for children. In many communities, they are prohibited from engaging in activities that would compromise their ability to complete these tasks.
  • Security Concerns – Women face higher risks working in informal settlement areas at certain hours or when they are working alone.
  • Lack of Role Models – There are not many women in leadership roles who exemplify the contributions they can make through digital projects.
Members of the Open Cities Antananarivo team move through the project community in small teams. Photo credit: HABAKA

Taking Action

All Open Cities Africa teams addressed the education barrier by providing comprehensive training to every participant so that recruitment could be based on interest rather than previous experience. To gain buy-in from decision-making authorities, the team in Ngaoundéré met with local heads of households to introduce the project and explain the benefits of involving women and girls in this work. To accommodate responsibilities at home, data collectors in several cities were allowed flexible schedules, which let women select times to work when they were available. In Antananarivo, teams traveled through communities in pairs to ensure the security of female members. And in Accra, Kinshasa and Pointe-Noire, women led community outreach efforts, serving as role models to women interested in data collection and mapping.

Efforts taken to promote women’s participation have produced tangible benefits, among which include an emerging cohort of female Open Cities Africa alumni with digital skills who are now serving as role models for other women in their communities. Through the Open Cities Accra project Pascalina Awelana Abadum, a member of the data collection team, developed an interest in data quality and the use of drone imagery. Encouraged by her project supervisor, she went on to complete an internship with a local drone imagery provider, Soko Aerial Robotics, and ultimately was selected to participate in the 2020 Africa Drone Forum in Rwanda. Today, Pascalina works on data quality for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, where she supports community projects focused on COVID-19 response and promoting girls’ access to education.

Actions taken to address barriers to women’s participation can begin to close the digital gender gap in cities across the region and promote the creation of maps and mapmakers that represent the needs of all community members. Supporting better representation and the growth of more female local champions like Pascalina will, in turn, support more inclusive and resilient urban development.

The pilot phase of the Open Cities Africa initiative was supported by Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery’s (GFDRR) Africa Disaster Risk Financing program with the help from the European Union. The initiative is now managed by the Africa team in the Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience & Land Global Practice.

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