Design ethics for gender-based violence and safety technologies

Digital technologies are increasingly proposed as innovative solution to the problems and threats faced by vulnerable groups such as children, women, and LGBTQ people. However, there exists a structural lack of consideration for gender and power relations in the design of Internet technologies, as previously discussed by scholars in media and communication studies (Barocas & Nissenbaum, 2009; boyd, 2001; Thakor, 2015) and technology studies (Balsamo, 2011; MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1999). But the intersection between gender-based violence and technology deserves greater attention. To this end, scholars from the Center for Information Technology at Princeton and the Oxford Internet Institute organized a workshop to explore the design ethics of gender-based violence and safety technologies at Princeton in the Spring of 2017.

The workshop welcomed a wide range of advocates in areas of intimate partner violence and sex work; engineers, designers, developers, and academics working on IT ethics. The objectives of the day were threefold:

(1) to better understand the lack of gender considerations in technology design,

(2) to formulate critical questions for functional requirement discussions between advocates and developers of gender-based violence applications; and

(3) to establish a set of criteria by which new applications can be assessed from a gender perspective.

Following three conceptual takeaways from the workshop, we share instructive primers for developers interested in creating technologies for those affected by gender-based violence.

Survivors, sex workers, and young people are intentional technology users

Increasing public awareness of the prevalence gender-based violence, both on and offline, often frames survivors of gender-based violence, activists, and young people as vulnerable and helpless. Contrary to this representation, those affected by gender-based violence are intentional technology users, choosing to adopt or abandon tools as they see fit. For example, sexual assault victims strategically disclose their stories on specific social media platforms to mobilize collective action. Sex workers adopt locative technologies to make safety plans. Young people utilize secure search tools to find information about sexual health resources near them. To fully understand how and why some technologies appear to do more for these communities, developers need to pay greater attention to the depth of their lived experience with technology.

Context matters

Technologies designed with good intentions do not inherently achieve their stated objectives. Functions that we take for granted to be neutral, such as a ‘Find my iPhone’ feature, can have unintended consequences. In contexts of gender-based violence, abusers and survivors appropriate these technological tools. For example, survivors and sex workers can use such a feature to share their whereabouts with friends in times of need. Abusers, on the other hand, can use the locative functions to stalk their victims. It is crucial to consider the context within which a technology is used, the user’s relationship to their environment, their needs, and interests so that technologies can begin to support those affected by gender-based violence.

Vulnerable communities perceive unique affordances

Drawing from ecological psychology, technology scholars have described this tension between design and use as affordance, to explain how a user’s perception of what can and cannot be done on a device informs their use. Designers may create a technology with a specific use in mind, but users will appropriate, resist, and improvise their use of the features as they see fit. For example, the use of a hashtags like #SurvivorPrivilege is an example of how rape victims create in-groups on Twitter to engage in supportive discussions, without the intention of it going viral.

Action Item

1. Predict unintended outcomes

Relatedly, the idea of devices as having affordances allows us to detect how technologies lead to unintended outcomes. Facebook’s ‘authentic name’ policy may have been instituted to promote safety for victims of relationship violence. The social and political contexts in which this policy is used, however, disproportionately affects the safety of human rights activists, drag queens, sex workers, and others — including survivors of partner violence.

2. Question the default

Technology developers are in a position to design the default settings of their technology. Since such settings are typically left unchanged by users, developers must take into account the effect on their target end users. For example, the default notification setting for text messages display the full message content in home screen. A smartphone user may experience texting as a private activity, but the default setting enables other people who are physically co-present to be involved. Opting out of this default setting requires some technical knowledge from the user. In abusive relationships, the abuser can therefore easily access the victim’s text messages through this default setting. So, in designing smartphone applications for survivors, developers should question the default privacy setting.

3. Inclusivity is not generalizability

There appears to be an equation of generalizability with inclusivity. An alarm button that claims to be for generally safety purposes may take a one-size-fits-all approach by automatically connecting the user to law enforcement. In cases of sexual assault, especially involving those who are of color, in sex work, or of LGBTQ identities, survivors are likely to avoid such features precisely because of its connection to law enforcement. This means that those who are most vulnerable are inadvertently excluded from the feature. Alternatively, an alarm feature that centers on these communities may direct the user to local resources. Thus, a feature that is generalizable may overlook target groups it aims to support; a more targeted feature may have less reach, but meet its objective. Just as communities’ needs are context-based, inclusivity, too, is contextualized. Developers should realize that that the broader mission of inclusivity can in fact be completed by addressing a specific need, though this may reduce the scope of end-users.

4. Consider co-designing

How, then, can we develop targeted technologies? Workshop participants suggested co-design (similarly, user-participatory design) as a process through which marginalized communities can take a leading role in developing new technologies. Instead of thinking about communities as passive recipients of technological tools, co-design positions both target communities and technologists as active agents who share skills and knowledge to develop innovative, technological interventions.

5. Involve funders and donors

Breakout group discussions pointed out how developers’ organizational and funding structures play a key role in shaping the kind of technologies they create. Suggested strategies included (1) educating donors about the specific social issue being addressed, (2) carefully considering whether funding sources meet developers’ objectives, and (3) ensuring diversity in the development team.

6. Do no harm with your research

In conducting user research, academics and technologists aim to better understand marginalized groups’ technology uses because they are typically at the forefront of adopting and appropriating digital tools. While it is important to expand our understanding of vulnerable communities’ everyday experience with technology, research on this topic can be used by authorities to further marginalize and target these communities. Take, for example, how tech startups like this align with law enforcement in ways that negatively affect sex workers. To ensure that research done about communities can actually contribute to supporting those communities, academics and developers must be vigilant and cautious about conducting ethical research that protects its subjects.

7. Should this app exist?

The most important question to address at the beginning of a technology design process should be: Should there even be an app for this? The idea that technologies can solve social problems as long as the technologists just “nerd harder” continues to guide the development and funding of new technologies. Many social problems are not necessarily data problems that can be solved by an efficient design and padded with enhanced privacy features. One necessary early strategy of intervention is to simply raise the question of whether technologies truly have a place in the particular context and, if so, whether it addresses a specific need.

Our workshop began with big questions about the intersections of gender-based violence and technology, and concluded with a simple but piercing question: Who designs what for whom? Implicated here are the complex workings of gender, sexuality, and power embedded in the lifetime of newly emerging devices from design to use. Apps and platforms can certainly have their place when confronting social problems, but the flow of data and the revealed information must be carefully tailored to the target context.

If you want to be involved with these future projects, please contact Kate Sim or Ben Zevenbergen.

The workshop was funded by the Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP), Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, the Ford Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation, and Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology.

This post was originally posted on CITP’s Freedom to Tinker blog.

We should pay more attention to the role of gender in Islamist radicalization

One of the key current UK security issues is how to deal with British citizens returning from participation in ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Most of the hundreds fighting with ISIS were men and youths. But, dozens of British women and girls also travelled to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. For some, online recruitment appeared to be an important part of their radicalization, and many took to the Internet to praise life in the new Caliphate once they arrived there. These cases raised concerns about female radicalization online, and put the issue of women, terrorism, and radicalization firmly on the policy agenda. This was not the first time such fears had been raised. In 2010, the university student Roshonara Choudhry stabbed her Member of Parliament, after watching YouTube videos of the radical cleric Anwar Al Awlaki. She is the first and only British woman so far convicted of a violent Islamist attack.

In her Policy & Internet article “The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalization, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad”, Elizabeth Pearson explores how gender might have factored in Roshonara’s radicalization, in order to present an alternative to existing theoretical explanations. First, in precluding her from a real-world engagement with Islamism on her terms, gender limitations in the physical world might have pushed her to the Internet. Here, a lack of religious knowledge made her particularly vulnerable to extremist ideology; a susceptibility only increased through Internet socialization and to an active radical milieu. Finally, it might have created a dissonance between her online and multiple “real” gendered identities, resulting in violence.

As yet, there is no adequately proven link between online material and violent acts. But given the current reliance of terrorism research on the online environment, and the reliance of policy on terrorism research, the relationship between the virtual and offline domains must be better understood. So too must the process of “radicalization” — which still lacks clarity, and relies on theorizing that is rife with assumptions. Whatever the challenges, understanding how men and women become violent radicals, and the differences there might be between them, has never been more important.

We caught up with Elizabeth to discuss her findings:

Ed.: You note “the Internet has become increasingly attractive to many women extremists in recent years” — do these extremist views tend to be found on (general) social media or on dedicated websites? Presumably these sites are discoverable via fairly basic search?

Elizabeth: Yes and no. Much content is easily found online. ISIS has been very good at ‘colonizing’ popular social media platforms with supporters, and in particular, Twitter was for a period the dominant site. It was ideal as it allowed ISIS fans to find one another, share material, and build networks and communities of support. In the past 18 months Twitter has made a concerted – and largely successful – effort to ‘take down’ or suspend accounts. This may simply have pushed support elsewhere. We know that Telegram is now an important channel for information, for example. Private groups, the dark web and hidden net resources exist alongside open source material on sites such as Facebook, familiar to everyone. Given the illegality of much of this content, there has been huge pressure on companies to respond. Still there is criticism from bodies such as the Home Affairs Select Committee that they are not responding quickly or efficiently enough.

Ed.: This case seemed to represent a collision not just of “violent jihadists vs the West” but also “Salafi-Jihadists vs women” (as well as “Western assumptions of Muslim assumptions of acceptable roles for women”) .. were these the main tensions at play here?

Elizabeth: One of the key aspects of Roshonara’s violence was that it was transgressive. Violent Jihadist groups tend towards conservatism regarding female roles. Although there is no theological reason why women should not participate in the defensive Jihad, they are not encouraged to do so. ISIS has worked hard in its propaganda to keep female roles domestic – yet ideologically so. Roshonara appears to have absorbed Al Awlaki’s messaging regarding the injustices faced by Muslims, but only acted when she saw a video by Azzam, a very key scholar for Al Qaeda supporters, which she understood as justifying female violence. Hatred of western foreign policy, and support for intervention in Iraq appeared to be the motivation for her attack; a belief that women could also fight is what prompted her to carry this out herself.

Ed.: Does this struggle tend to be seen as a political struggle about land and nationhood; or a supranational religious struggle — or both? (with the added complication of Isis conflating nation and religion..)

Elizabeth: Nobody yet understands exactly why people ‘radicalize’. It’s almost impossible to profile violent radicals beyond saying they tend to be mainly male – and as we know, that is not a hard and fast rule either. What we can say is that there are complex factors, and a variety of recurrent themes cited by violent actors, and found in propaganda and messaging. One narrative is about political struggle on behalf of Muslims, who face injustice, particularly from the West. ISIS has made this struggle about the domination of land and nationhood, a development of Al Qaeda’s message. Religion is also important to this. Despite different levels of knowledge of Islam, supporters of the violent Jihad share commitment to battle as justified in the Quran. They believe that Islam is the way, the only way, and they find in their faith an answer to global issues, and whatever is happening personally to them. It is not possible, in my view, to ignore the religious component declared in this struggle. But there are other factors too. That’s what makes this so difficult and complex.

Ed.: You say that Roshonara “did not follow the path of radicalization set out in theory”. How so? But also .. how important and grounded is this “theory” in the practice of counter-radicalization? And what do exceptions like Roshonara Choudhry signify?

Elizabeth: Theory — based on empirical evidence — suggests that violence is a male preserve. Violent Jihadist groups also generally restrict their violence to men, and men only. Theory also tells us that actors rarely carry out violence alone. Belonging is an important part of the violent Jihad and ‘entrance’ to violence is generally through people you know, friends, family, acquaintances. Even where we have seen young women for example travel to join ISIS, this has tended to be facilitated through friends, or online contacts, or family. Roshanara as a female acting alone in this time before ISIS is therefore something quite unusual. She signifies – through her somewhat unique case – just how transgressive female violence is, and just how unusual solitary action is. She also throws into question the role of the internet. The internet alone is not usually sufficient for radicalization; offline contacts matter. In her case there remain some questions of what other contacts may have influenced her violence.

I’m not entirely sure how joined up counter-radicalization practices and radicalization theory are. The Prevent strategy aside, there are many different approaches, in the UK alone. The most successful that I have seen are due to committed individuals who know the communities they are based in and are trusted by them. It is relationships that seem to count, above all else.

Ed.: Do you think her case is an interesting outlier (a “lone wolf” as people commented at the time), or do you think there’s a need for more attention to be paid to gender (and women) in this area, either as potential threats, or solutions?

Elizabeth: Roshonara is a young woman, still in jail for her crime. As I wrote this piece I thought of her as a student at King’s College London, as I am, and I found it therefore all the more affecting that she did what she did. There is a connection through that shared space. So it’s important for me to think of her in human terms, in terms of what her life was like, who her friends were, what her preoccupations were and how she managed, or did not manage, her academic success, her transition to a different identity from the one her parents came from. She is interesting to me because of this, and because she is an outlier. She is an outlier who reveals certain truths about what gender means in the violent Jihad. That means women, yes, but also men, ideas about masculinity, male and female roles. I don’t think we should think of young Muslim people as either ‘threats’ or ‘solutions’. These are not the only possibilities. We should think about society, and how gender works within it, and within particular communities within it.

Ed.: And is gender specifically “relevant” to consider when it comes to Islamic radicalization, or do you see similar gender dynamics across all forms of political and religious extremism?

Elizabeth: My current PhD research considers the relationship between the violent Jihad and the counter-Jihad – cumulative extremism. To me, gender matters in all study. It’s not really anything special or extra, it’s just a recognition that if you are looking at groups you need to take into account the different ways that men and women are affected. To me that seems quite basic, because otherwise you are not really seeing a whole picture. Conservative gender dynamics are certainly also at work in some nationalist groups. The protection of women, the function of women as representative of the honour or dishonour of a group or nation – these matter to groups and ideologies beyond the violent Jihad. However, the counter-Jihad is in other ways progressive, for example promoting narratives of protecting gay rights as well as women’s rights. So women for both need to be protected – but what they need to be protected from and how differs for each. What is important is that the role of women, and of gender, matters in consideration of any ‘extremism’, and indeed in politics more broadly.

Ed.: You’re currently doing research on Boko Haram — are you also looking at gender? And are there any commonalities with the British context you examined in this article?

Elizabeth: Boko Haram interests me because of the ways in which it has transgressed some of the most fundamental gender norms of the Jihad. Since 2014 they have carried out hundreds of suicide attacks using women and girls. This is highly unusual and in fact unprecedented in terms of numbers. How this impacts on their relationship with the international Jihad, and since 2015, ISIS, to whom their leader gave a pledge of allegiance is something I have been thinking about.

There are many local aspects of the Nigerian conflict that do not translate – poverty, the terrain, oral traditions of preaching, human rights violations, Sharia in northern Nigerian states, forced recruitment.. In gender terms however, the role of women, the honour/dishonour of women, and gender-based violence translate across contexts. In particular, women are frequently instrumentalized by movements for a greater cause. Perhaps the greatest similarity is the resistance to the imposition of Western norms, including gender norms, free-mixing between men and women and gender equality. This is a recurrent theme for violent Jihadists and their supporters across geography. They wish to protect the way of life they understand in the Quran, as they believe this is the word of God, and the only true word, superseding all man-made law.

Read the full article: Pearson, E. (2016) The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalization, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad. Policy & Internet 8 (1) doi:10.1002/poi3.101.

Elizabeth Pearson was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

“If you’re on Twitter then you’re asking for it” — responses to sexual harassment online and offline

To encourage new ways of thinking about the problem of sexism in daily life, the OII’s recent Everyday Sexism Datahack brought together twenty people from a range of disciplinary backgrounds to analyse the written accounts of sexism and harassment gathered by the Everyday Sexism project. Founded by Laura Bates in 2012, Everyday Sexism has gathered more than 120,000 accounts submitted by members of the public.

A research team at the OII has already been analysing the content, and provided cleaned data to the datahack participants that could be analysed through qualitative and quantitative methods. Following an introduction to the project by Laura Bates, an outline of the dataset by Taha Yasseri, and a speed-networking session led by Kathryn Eccles we fell into two teams to work with the data.

Our own group wanted to examine the question of how people interact with the threat of public space. We were also interested in how public space is divided between online and offline, and the social perception of being online versus offline. We wanted to explore what sorts of reactions people might have to examples of assault, or strategies or things they might do in response to something happening to them — and how they might differ online and offline.

We spent the first hour collecting keywords that might indicate reactions to either online or offline harassment, including identifying a perceived threat and coping with it. We then searched the raw data for responses like “I tried to ignore it” “I felt safe / unsafe” “I identified a risk” “I was feeling worried, feeling anxious or nervous“; and also looked at online versus offline actions. So for online action we were looking for specific platforms being named, and people saying things like “comment, response, delete, remove” in relation to social media posts. For offline we were looking for things like “I carried a [specific item]” or “I hid or avoided certain areas“ or “I walked faster” (etc.).

We wanted to know if we could apply ideas of responses to offline space back to online spaces, and how these online spaces fall short. Offline responses are often very individual, whereas you might not have such a direct and individual response to something like a Facebook ad. Taking into account the important caveat that this was just a quick exploration of the data — and that the data were indicative rather than representative (so should in no way be used to extrapolate or infer anything concrete) one of the biggest things we found was that while in the offline examples of responses to harassment there was quite a lot of action, like running away, or hiding in shops and restaurants, there were very few examples to responses in the online examples.

Though it actually turned out to be difficult to identify a clear division between online/offline contexts in the data: we saw accounts of people who were online on social media encountering something sexist and logging off, and then walking in the street and getting harassed. But it seemed like people were more likely to report something offline to the police than in online forums. And this contrast is very interesting, in terms of whether you can be an active agent in response to something, or whether there’s something about being online that positions you as being passive and unable to respond — and what we can do about that.

While we found it difficult to quantify, we did wonder if people might not be giving themselves credit for the kinds of responses they have to examples of sexism online — maybe they aren’t thinking about what they do. Whereas offline they might say “I ran away, because I was so scared” perhaps when it’s online, people just read it and not respond; or at least not report responses to the same extent. There were lots of complaints about images, or hypocrisy about Facebook’s enforcement of community standards (such as allowing rape jokes, but deleting pictures of breast-feeding), and other things like that. But the accounts don’t say if they reported it or took action.

This is strange because in cases of offline harassment in the street, where it escalates into something physical like a fight, women are often at a disadvantage: whereas in the online context women ought to have more leverage — but it does’t seem like reporting is being done. When we examined the themes of how people reacted online, we further differentiated between removing the source of a sexist comment (such as unfriending, unfollowing, muting, deleting) and removing the self (such as going offline, or removing yourself from the platform). It seemed that removing the source was generally more common than removing the self.

So people might simply be normalising the idea that misogyny and sexism is going to exist in forums. In the data someone had reported someone on Twitter saying “Well if you’re on Twitter you’re asking for it” — indicative of a “short-skirt” line of thinking about engaging on social media. In this environment people might see unfollowing and unfriending as a form of management and negotiation, as opposed to a fundamental problem with the site itself. It would be interesting to explore the self-censoring that happens before anything happens: quite a few of the examples we read opened with “I wasn’t even wearing anything provocative, but [this] happened..”. And it would be interesting to know if people also think like that in the online context: “I wasn’t even participating in a controversial way, but this still happened”. It’s an interesting parallel, maybe.

After dinner: the best time to create 1.5 million dollars of ground-breaking science

Count this! In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, NASA’s Great Observatories — the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory — collaborated to produce this image of the central region of our Milky Way galaxy. Image: Nasa Marshall Space Flight Center
Since it first launched as a single project called Galaxy Zoo in 2007, the Zooniverse has grown into the world’s largest citizen science platform, with more than 25 science projects and over 1 million registered volunteer citizen scientists. While initially focused on astronomy projects, such as those exploring the surfaces of the moon and the planet Mars, the platform now offers volunteers the opportunity to read and transcribe old ship logs and war diaries, identify animals in nature capture photos, track penguins, listen to whales communicating and map kelp from space.

These projects are examples of citizen science; collaborative research undertaken by professional scientists and members of the public. Through these projects, individuals who are not necessarily knowledgeable about or familiar with science can become active participants in knowledge creation (such as in the examples listed in the Chicago Tribune: Want to aid science? You can Zooniverse).

The Zooniverse is a predominant example of citizen science projects that have enjoyed particularly widespread popularity and traction online.

Although science-public collaborative efforts have long existed, the Zooniverse is a predominant example of citizen science projects that have enjoyed particularly widespread popularity and traction online. In addition to making science more open and accessible, online citizen science accelerates research by leveraging human and computing resources, tapping into rare and diverse pools of expertise, providing informal scientific education and training, motivating individuals to learn more about science, and making science fun and part of everyday life.

While online citizen science is a relatively recent phenomenon, it has attracted considerable academic attention. Various studies have been undertaken to examine and understand user behaviour, motivation, and the benefits and implications of different projects for them. For instance, Sauermann and Franzoni’s analysis of seven Zooniverse projects (Solar Stormwatch, Galaxy Zoo Supernovae, Galaxy Zoo Hubble, Moon Zoo, Old Weather, The Milkyway Project, and Planet Hunters) found that 60 percent of volunteers never return to a project after finishing their first session of contribution. By comparing contributions to these projects with those of research assistants and Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, they also calculated that these voluntary efforts amounted to an equivalent of $1.5 million in human resource costs.

Our own project on the taxonomy and ecology of contributions to the Zooniverse examines the geographical, gendered and temporal patterns of contributions and contributors to 17 Zooniverse projects between 2009 and 2013. Our preliminary results show that:

  • The geographical distribution of volunteers and contributions is highly uneven, with the UK and US contributing the bulk of both. Quantitative analysis of 130 countries show that of three factors – population, GDP per capita and number of Internet users – the number of Internet users is most strongly correlated with the number of volunteers and number of contributions. However, when population is controlled, GDP per capita is found to have greater correlation with numbers of users and volunteers. The correlations are positive, suggesting that wealthier (or more developed) countries are more likely to be involved in the citizen science projects.
The Global distribution of contributions to the projects within our dataset of 35 million records. The number of contributions of each country is normalized to the population of the country.
The Global distribution of contributions to the projects within our dataset of 35 million records. The number of contributions of each country is normalized to the population of the country.
  • Female volunteers are underrepresented in most countries. Very few countries have gender parity in participation. In many other countries, women make up less than one-third of number of volunteers whose gender is known. The female ratio of participation in the UK and Australia, for instance, is 25 per cent, while the figures for US, Canada and Germany are between 27 and 30 per cent. These figures are notable when compared with the percentage of academic jobs in the sciences held by women. In the UK, women make up only 30.3 percent of full time researchers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) departments (UKRC report, 2010), and 24 per cent in the United States (US Department of Commerce report, 2011).
  • Our analysis of user preferences and activity show that in general, there is a strong subject preference among users, with two main clusters evident among users who participate in more than one project. One cluster revolves around astrophysics projects. Volunteers in these projects are more likely to take part in other astrophysics projects, and when one project ends, volunteers are more likely to start a new project within this cluster. Similarly, volunteers in the other cluster, which are concentrated around life and Earth science projects, have a higher likelihood of being involved in other life and Earth science projects than in astrophysics projects. There is less cross-project involvement between the two main clusters.
Dendrogram showing the overlap of contributors between projects. The scale indicates the similarity between the pools of contributors to pairs of projects. Astrophysics (blue) and Life-Earth Science (green and brown) projects create distinct clusters. Old Weather 1 and WhaleFM are exceptions to this pattern, and Old Weather 1 has the most distinct pool of contributors.
Dendrogram showing the overlap of contributors between projects. The scale indicates the similarity between the pools of contributors to pairs of projects. Astrophysics (blue) and Life-Earth Science (green and brown) projects create distinct clusters. Old Weather 1 and WhaleFM are exceptions to this pattern, and Old Weather 1 has the most distinct pool of contributors.
  • In addition to a tendency for cross-project activity to be contained within the same clusters, there is also a gendered pattern of engagement in various projects. Females make up more than half of gender-identified volunteers in life science projects (Snapshot Serengeti, Notes from Nature and WhaleFM have more than 50 per cent of women contributors). In contrast, the proportions of women are lowest in astrophysics projects (Galaxy Zoo Supernovae and Planet Hunters have less than 20 per cent of female contributors). These patterns suggest that science subjects in general are gendered, a finding that correlates with those by the US National Science Foundation (2014). According to an NSF report, there are relatively few women in engineering (13 per cent), computer and mathematical sciences (25 per cent), but they are well-represented in the social sciences (58 per cent) and biological and medical sciences (48 per cent).
  • For the 20 most active countries (led by the UK, US and Canada), the most productive hours in terms of user contributions are between 8pm and 10pm. This suggests that citizen science is an after-dinner activity (presumably, reflecting when most people have free time before bed). This general pattern corresponds with the idea that many types of online peer-production activities, such as citizen science, are driven by ‘cognitive surplus’, that is, the aggregation of free time spent on collective pursuits (Shirky, 2010).

These are just some of the results of our study, which has found that despite being informal, relatively more open and accessible, online citizen science exhibits similar geographical and gendered patterns of knowledge production as professional, institutional science. In other ways, citizen science is different. Unlike institutional science, the bulk of citizen science activity happens late in the day, after the workday has ended and people are winding down after dinner and before bed.

We will continue our investigations into the patterns of activity in citizen science and the behaviour of citizen scientists, in order to help improve ways to make science more accessible in general and to tap into the resources of the public for scientific knowledge production. It is anticipated that upcoming projects on the Zooniverse will be more diversified and include topics from the humanities and social sciences. Towards this end, we aim to continue our investigations into patterns of activity on the citizen science platform, and the implications of a wider range of projects on the user base (in terms of age, gender and geographical coverage) and on user behaviour.


Sauermann, H., & Franzoni, C. (2015). Crowd science user contribution patterns and their implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(3), 679-684.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. Penguin: London.

Taha Yasseri is the Research Fellow in Computational Social Science at the OII. Prior to coming to the OII, he spent two years as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, working on the socio-physical aspects of the community of Wikipedia editors, focusing on conflict and editorial wars, along with Big Data analysis to understand human dynamics, language complexity, and popularity spread. He has interests in analysis of Big Data to understand human dynamics, government-society interactions, mass collaboration, and opinion dynamics.

Gender gaps in virtual economies: are there virtual ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ collar occupations?

She could end up earning 11 percent less than her male colleagues .. Image from EVE Online by zcar.300.
She could end up earning 11 percent less than her male colleagues .. Image from EVE Online by zcar.300.

Ed: Firstly, what is a ‘virtual’ economy? And what exactly are people earning or exchanging in these online environments?

Vili: A virtual economy is an economy that revolves around artificially scarce virtual markers, such as Facebook likes or, in this case, virtual items and currencies in an online game. A lot of what we do online today is rewarded with such virtual wealth instead of, say, money.

Ed: In terms of ‘virtual earning power’ what was the relationship between character gender and user gender?

Vili: We know that in national economies, men and women tend to be rewarded differently for the same amount of work; men tend to earn more than women. Since online economies are such a big part of many people’s lives today, we wanted to know if this holds true in those economies as well. Looking at the virtual economies of two massively-multiplayer online games (MMOG), we found that there are indeed some gender differences in how much virtual wealth players accumulate within the same number of hours played. In one game, EVE Online, male players were on average 11 percent wealthier than female players of the same age, character skill level, and time spent playing. We believe that this finding is explained at least in part by the fact that male and female players tend to favour different activities within the game worlds, what we call “virtual pink and blue collar occupations”. In national economies, this is called occupational segregation: jobs perceived as suitable for men are rewarded differently from jobs perceived as suitable for women, resulting in a gender earnings gap.

However, in another game, EverQuest II, we found that male and female players were approximately equally wealthy. This reflects the fact that games differ in what kind of activities they reward. Some provide a better economic return on fighting and exploring, while others make it more profitable to engage in trading and building social networks. In this respect games differ from national economies, which all tend to be biased towards rewarding male-type activities. Going beyond this particular study, fantasy economies could also help illuminate the processes through which particular occupations come to be regarded as suitable for men or for women, because game developers can dream up new occupations with no prior gender expectations attached.

Ed: You also discussed the distinction between user gender and character gender…

Vili: Besides occupational segregation, there are also other mechanisms that could explain economic gender gaps, like differences in performance or outright discrimination in pay negotiations. What’s interesting about game economies is that people can appear in the guise of a gender that differs from their everyday identity: men can play female characters and vice versa. By looking at player gender and character gender separately, we can distinguish between how “being” female and “appearing to be” female are related to economic outcomes.

We found that in EVE Online, using a female character was associated with slightly less virtual wealth, while in EverQuest II, using a female character was associated with being richer on average. Since in our study the players chose the characters themselves instead of being assigned characters at random, we don’t know what the causal relationship between character gender and wealth in these games was, if any. But it’s interesting to note that again the results differed completely between games, suggesting that while gender does matter, its effect has more to do with the mutable “software” of the players and/or the coded environments rather than our immutable “hardware”.

Ed: The dataset you worked with could be considered to be an example of ‘big data’ (ie you had full transactional trace data people interacting in two games) — what can you discover with this sort of data (as opposed to eg user surveys, participant observation, or ethnographies); and how useful or powerful is it?

Vili: Social researchers are used to working with small samples of data, and then looking at measures of statistical significance to assess whether the findings are generalizable to the overall population or whether they’re just a fluke. This focus on statistical significance is sometimes so extreme that people forget to consider the practical significance of the findings: even if the effect is real, is it big enough to make any difference in practice? In contrast, when you are working with big data, almost any relationship is statistically significant, so that becomes irrelevant. As a result, people learn to focus more on practical significance — researchers, peer reviewers, journal editors, funders, as well as the general public. This is a good thing, because it can increase the impact that social research has in society.

In this study, we spent a lot of time thinking about the practical significance of the findings. In any national economy, a 11 percent gap between men and women would be huge. But in virtual economies, overall wealth inequality tends to be orders of magnitude greater than in national economies, so that a 11 percent gap is in fact relatively minuscule. Other factors, like whether one is a casual participant in the economy or a semi-professional, have a much bigger effect, so much so that I’m not sure if participants notice a gender gap themselves. Thus one of the key conclusions of the study was that we also need to look beyond traditional sociodemographic categories like gender to see what new social divisions may be appearing in virtual economies.

Ed: What do you think are the hot topics and future directions in research (and policy) on virtual economies, gaming, microwork, crowd-sourcing etc.?

Vili: Previously, ICT adoption resulted in some people’s jobs being eliminated and others being enhanced. This shift had uneven impacts on men’s and women’s jobs. Today, we are seeing an Internet-fuelled “volunterization” of some types of work — moving the work from paid employees and contractors to crowds and fans compensated with points, likes, and badges rather than money. Social researchers should keep track of how this shift impacts different social categories like men and women: whose work ends up being compensated in play money, and who gets to keep the conventional rewards.

Read the full article: Lehdonvirta, V., Ratan, R. A., Kennedy, T. L., and Williams, D. (2014) Pink and Blue Pixel$: Gender and Economic Disparity in Two Massive Online Games. The Information Society 30 (4) 243-255.

Vili Lehdonvirta is a Research Fellow and DPhil Programme Director at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an editor of the Policy & Internet journal. He is an economic sociologist who studies the social and economic dimensions of new information technologies around the world, with particular expertise in digital markets and crowdsourcing.

Vili Lehdonvirta was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.