Diversity and equality are the central tenets of modern liberal society, yet more often than not reality does not live up to the high ideals we like to believe. The Open Gender Tracker project, which recently received a $30,000 grant from the Knight Foundation's prototype fund, aims to illuminate the darker corners of society's perceived wisdom.
A collaboration between Irene Ros and Adam Hyland of the open web technology company Bocoup and Nathan Matias of the MIT Center for Civic Media, the Open Gender Tracker Project analyses the gender balance within news organisations.
"When I first charted out two decades of major international newspapers I was very shocked to see how flat the line was of articles by women over time," Matias told Journalism.co.uk, describing how much of his work concerns the representation of women in the media. "So I've been doing a lot of different things and building a lot of different technologies to understand how gender plays out in the crazy ecosystems of online news."
In a fitting reversal of traditional gender stereotypes, it is Ros who has been largely responsible for the technological side of constructing the site through her work with Bocoup, an organisation committed to making open source software.
"I did a project that looked at the New York Times and their byline distribution," she said. "That really came together alongside being a woman in technology as I'm very acutely aware of questions of balance and so on. I really care about journalism and believe that balance is key to its success, so it ended up being a perfect marriage of my interests and Nathan's."We really want people to be able to very quickly add new ways to evaluate gender balance and add new ways to use the output they get out of our systemIrene Ros, Bocoup
Ros cites the work of the Global Media Monitoring Project as an influence and inspiration, as well as a potential collaborator. But where GMMP analyses data and factors manually, Ros wants to take those criteria and and make them "computationally available".
The technicalities and inner-workings of the platform require a degree of programming knowledge inherent to its open source nature, but that is largely the point, said Ros.
"We built this system with that in mind," she said. "We really want people to be able to very quickly add new ways to evaluate gender balance and add new ways to use the output they get out of our system."
"It allows you to input news content and then extract and attach new data to that," added Matias. "So whether you're finding out who's writing it, whether you're finding out who is being written about or whether you're grabbing audience data associated with those articles – how they're spreading on social media – and bringing all that data together and making it available for reports and analysis."
One such report was a recent collaboration with the Guardian in analysing the authorship of citizen media site Global Voices. Matias had previously worked with the Guardian in investigating gender bias among newspapers in the UK – a fairly damning assessment of a year at the Guardian, Telegraph and Daily Mail – but by using Ros's software the scope of the analysis increased dramatically.
By analysing data over a seven-year period, the team members were able to identify authorship statistics by year, region and number of posts, each of which exceeded the UK news outlets investigated in the previous report in terms of gender equality.
"Irene has taken Open Gender Tracker to the point where it's quite a lot more than a hack," said Matias. "It's a really well architected, robust system for doing lots of different kinds of data analysis on news content and I think I'm also excited to see, beyond this grant, where people take it and what new possibilities arise."
The team has also been working with the Boston Globe, building a web application that works specifically with the website's API in looking at the gender breakdown of specific queries. Unlike the Global Voices and Guardian collaborations, the Boston Globe project is not yet publicly available but the open source nature of the Open Gender Tracker system makes it easily applicable to any organisation's needs.It's no longer individual news organisations or broadcasters that are solely shaping who gets heard in societyNathan Matias, MIT Centre for Civic Media
"It's really valuable to collaborate with news organisations for two reasons," said Matias. "Firstly, tools like this are in service of a purpose and it's incredibly helpful for us to understand not only how to work with their data but also how this kind of analysis of gender can help the Boston Globe make sense of itself and that's where this kind of conversation is incredibly valuable. In addition to that, Open Gender Tracker is designed to be really easy to plug into any news API, so we've been working with the Globe in connecting Open Gender Tracker with the Boston Globe API."
With the funding they have received from the Knight Foundation, Ros and Matias want to expand the project in two directions: enlarging the current database of names and pronouns into other languages and growing the types of criteria by which gender bias is analysed, specifically around social media and adjectives used to describe men and women in articles.
"It's no longer individual news organisations or broadcasters that are solely shaping who gets heard in society," said Matias. "It's blogs, it's social media, it's the behaviour of a large number of people in the audience as we like and share things and algorithms are taking in all of those different signals and deciding what to recommend to us."
As well as the question of authorship, Matias believes the question of who is being written about, how they are being written about and then how that information is being dispersed and received within the wider context of the web is just as important.
"I can imagine lots of different kinds of software that looks at the content, extracts useful information about it and then presents that in interesting ways. Open Gender Tracker is like the basic architecture that you could use to create any manner of those kind of things, particularly in the world of gender."
More information on the project is available through the Open Gender Tracker website.
Correction: Irene Ros's name was originally reported as 'Rios'.