The Data Whisperer

With a love for crunching numbers, Dr Chew Han Ei (CS’ 01, MMC’08) shares his experiences as a project consultant for UNESCO, where he aims to bridge the inequality gap with his research. 

For Dr Chew Han Ei, his research interest lies in technology for development and education. “Research is a lifetime of work.” PHOTO: NIGEL CHAN

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Dr Chew Han Ei’s (CS’01, MMC’08) interest in big data started when he took his first research module, Fundamentals of Research, in his first year as an undergraduate at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. Under the mentorship of Associate Professor Ben Hill Detenber, Dr Chew graduated with first class honours and returned to the school to attain his master’s of Mass Communication in 2008. 

He subsequently pursued a Ph.D. in Media and Information Studies at Michigan State University. Today, the 43-year-old research scientist leads the research and development efforts at RySense, a Singapore-based research organisation. As a project consultant to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation since 2013, Dr Chew has been working with the Paris-based agency on a project-by-project basis.

In his latest research project with UNESCO published in May, titled “I’d Blush if I Could”, Dr Chew shares an unexpected finding: The Information and Communications Technology gender equality paradox, which shows the lack of direct association between gender equality and women in information and communication technology programmes. 

 

The ICT Gender Equality Paradox

Because ICT skills are essential for one to have when entering the AI field, researchers looked at the relationship between levels of gender equality in countries and the participation of women in ICT education programmes.

Researchers had expected to see a direct relationship between the two factors, but unexpectedly, an inverse relationship was shown. In countries with high levels of gender equality, lesser women were enrolled in ICT programmes. This inverse relationship was identified by Dr Chew as the ICT gender equality paradox. 

As Dr Chew suggested the theory for the anomaly, he was subsequently invited by researchers to co-author the paper at its last stages. 

According to Dr Chew, even when given the freedom of choice, females have veered away from the technological sector.

Although individual gender preferences might be a contributing factor, Dr Chew believes that cultural stereotypes such as “girls not being good in math and sciences” are the major problem. 

 

“There is a stereotype that guys can do tech better, so unless we can change the narrative on that, it’s always going to be limiting for the girls.”

Chew Han Ei (CS’01, MMC’ 08), Co-author of UNESCO’s “I’d Blush If I Could”, Consultant for UNESCO

The Gender Gap in AI

“I’d Blush if I Could” also found that in traditionally male-dominated spaces, the inherent gender bias in society seems to affect the confidence of females when it comes to learning digital skills. According to the UNESCO report, self-efficacy scores of females for advanced ICT tasks were significantly lower than boys’ in all countries.

“There is a stereotype that guys can do tech better, so unless we can change the narrative on that, it’s always going to be limiting for the girls,” said Dr Chew. 

He added that educational initiatives targeted towards girls can develop and encourage their interest in technology. One example is Girls Who Code, a non-profit organisation that hosts programmes teaching high school girls computing skills such as programming and robotics.

“Targeted interventions need to be directed at the education phase to correct the imbalance there,” said Dr Chew.

The next step in AI research for Dr Chew is to look into whether women who obtain ICT tertiary education have entered the AI sector of the workforce. 

 

Bridging Inequality with Research

On why he loves his job, Dr Chew shared that he finds it fulfilling to uncover gaps in policies and craft effective initiatives to bridge inequalities. “Research is a lifetime of work,”  he said, adding that he is certainly not planning to stop anytime soon. 

“I like the number-crunching and staring at the data to make sense of it,” he said. As a researcher, Dr Chew said understanding the data is not enough, viewing it in relation to the world is important as well. 

His flagship project with UNESCO in 2014, “Reading in the Mobile Era”, remains his favourite research endeavour to date. Dr Chew was the chief analyst and co-author of this large scale research project, which had more than 4,000 surveys conducted in seven developing countries. The project explored how access to books could be improved by using mobile phones, which, in turn, would hopefully help to increase literacy rates. According to Dr Chew, these findings were then used to help developing countries formulate e-reading programmes. 

“I do the research that I do because I know what it’s like to struggle and not have those opportunities.”

Chew Han Ei (CS’01, MMC’ 08), Co-author of UNESCO’s “I’d Blush If I Could”, Consultant for UNESCO

His desire to bridge the inequality gap drives his passion for research, especially in the area of technology for education and development, a subject close to his heart. “I grew up in quite a poor family, so I didn’t have much growing up.” Dr Chew said. 

Dr Chew has always had a voracious appetite for books. “There was always this hunger for knowledge,” said Dr Chew. But having grown up in a low-income family, his parents had no means of feeding it. 

"I do the research that I do because I know what it’s like to have to struggle. And not have those opportunities,” Dr Chew said. “My research is in service, to hopefully pass it on or pay it forward, for young people who may not have these opportunities to also have them.” 

At WKWSCI, Dr Chew satisfied his hunger for knowledge by venturing into the world of research. He credits his mentor, Assoc Prof Detenber, for inspiring him to constantly challenge himself.

“He inspired me to ask tough questions about social and communication phenomena and to answer them using rigorous approaches,” said Dr Chew.

With a small cohort of 100 undergraduates before, it was easier for professors and students to communicate on a deeper level. When Professor Ang Peng Hwa and Assoc Prof Detenber learnt of Dr Chew’s financial difficulties in paying for the university’s tuition fees, they advised him to apply for scholarships, awards and book prizes. 

"I'm very grateful for the opportunities that WKWSCI has opened up for me and the professors' help over the years,” Dr Chew said.

Looking forward, there are many projects in store for Dr Chew, including upcoming ones at UNESCO, who have called upon him to join its research into the AI space.

As someone who found his love for research in WKWSCI, Dr Chew urges students to find their passion and focus on it.

“If you have a spark, nurture it, pursue it, don’t give up on it too soon. Once you find your talent, pursue it single-mindedly.”

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