Human migration: the big data perspective


Alina Sîrbu et al at the International Journal of Data Science and Analytics: “How can big data help to understand the migration phenomenon? In this paper, we try to answer this question through an analysis of various phases of migration, comparing traditional and novel data sources and models at each phase. We concentrate on three phases of migration, at each phase describing the state of the art and recent developments and ideas. The first phase includes the journey, and we study migration flows and stocks, providing examples where big data can have an impact. The second phase discusses the stay, i.e. migrant integration in the destination country. We explore various data sets and models that can be used to quantify and understand migrant integration, with the final aim of providing the basis for the construction of a novel multi-level integration index. The last phase is related to the effects of migration on the source countries and the return of migrants….(More)”.

The human rights impacts of migration control technologies


Petra Molnar at EDRI: “At the start of this new decade, over 70 million people have been forced to move due to conflict, instability, environmental factors, and economic reasons. As a response to the increased migration into the European Union, many states are looking into various technological experiments to strengthen border enforcement and manage migration. These experiments range from Big Data predictions about population movements in the Mediterranean to automated decision-making in immigration applications and Artificial Intelligence (AI) lie detectors at European borders. However, often these technological experiments do not consider the profound human rights ramifications and real impacts on human lives

A human laboratory of high risk experiments

Technologies of migration management operate in a global context. They reinforce institutions, cultures, policies and laws, and exacerbate the gap between the public and the private sector, where the power to design and deploy innovation comes at the expense of oversight and accountability. Technologies have the power to shape democracy and influence elections, through which they can reinforce the politics of exclusion. The development of technology also reinforces power asymmetries between countries and influence our thinking around which countries can push for innovation, while other spaces like conflict zones and refugee camps become sites of experimentation. The development of technology is not inherently democratic and issues of informed consent and right of refusal are particularly important to think about in humanitarian and forced migration contexts. For example, under the justification of efficiency, refugees in Jordan have their irises scanned in order to receive their weekly rations. Some refugees in the Azraq camp have reported feeling like they did not have the option to refuse to have their irises scanned, because if they did not participate, they would not get food. This is not free and informed consent….(More)”.

Monitoring of the Venezuelan exodus through Facebook’s advertising platform


Paper by Palotti et al: “Venezuela is going through the worst economical, political and social crisis in its modern history. Basic products like food or medicine are scarce and hyperinflation is combined with economic depression. This situation is creating an unprecedented refugee and migrant crisis in the region. Governments and international agencies have not been able to consistently leverage reliable information using traditional methods. Therefore, to organize and deploy any kind of humanitarian response, it is crucial to evaluate new methodologies to measure the number and location of Venezuelan refugees and migrants across Latin America.

In this paper, we propose to use Facebook’s advertising platform as an additional data source for monitoring the ongoing crisis. We estimate and validate national and sub-national numbers of refugees and migrants and break-down their socio-economic profiles to further understand the complexity of the phenomenon. Although limitations exist, we believe that the presented methodology can be of value for real-time assessment of refugee and migrant crises world-wide….(More)”.

How Aid Groups Map Refugee Camps That Officially Don't Exist


Abby Sewell at Wired: “On the outskirts of Zahle, a town in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, a pair of aid workers carrying clipboards and cell phones walk through a small refugee camp, home to 11 makeshift shelters built from wood and tarps.

A camp resident leading them through the settlement—one of many in the Beqaa, a wide agricultural plain between Beirut and Damascus with scattered villages of cinderblock houses—points out a tent being renovated for the winter. He leads them into the kitchen of another tent, highlighting cracking wood supports and leaks in the ceiling. The aid workers record the number of residents in each tent, as well as the number of latrines and kitchens in the settlement.

The visit is part of an initiative by the Switzerland-based NGO Medair to map the locations of the thousands of informal refugee settlements in Lebanon, a country where even many city buildings have no street addresses, much less tents on a dusty country road.

“I always say that this project is giving an address to people that lost their home, which is giving back part of their dignity in a way,” says Reine Hanna, Medair’s information management project manager, who helped develop the mapping project.

The initiative relies on GIS technology, though the raw data is collected the old-school way, without high tech mapping aids like drones. Mapping teams criss-cross the country year round, stopping at each camp to speak to residents and conduct a survey. They enter the coordinates of new camps or changes in the population or facilities of old ones into a database that’s shared with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and other NGOs working in the camps. The maps can be accessed via a mobile app by workers heading to the field to distribute aid or respond to emergencies.

Lebanon, a small country with an estimated native population of about 4 million, hosts more than 900,000 registered Syrian refugees and potentially hundreds of thousands more unregistered, making it the country with the highest population of refugees per capita in the world.

But there are no official refugee camps run by the government or the UN refugee agency in Lebanon, where refugees are a sensitive subject. The country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and government officials refer to the Syrians as “displaced,” not “refugees.”

Lebanese officials have been wary of the Syrians settling permanently, as Palestinian refugees did beginning in 1948. Today, more than 70 years later, there are some 470,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, though the number living in the country is believed to be much lower….(More)”.

Four maps showing the growth of informal Syrian refugee settlements in the Zahle district of the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon
Maps compiled by UNHCR showing the growth in the number of informal refugee camps in one area of Lebanon over the past six years.COURTESY OF UNHCR

Crossing the Digital Divide: Applying Technology to the Global Refugee Crisis


Report by Shelly Culbertson, James Dimarogonas, Katherine Costello, and Serafina Lanna: “In the past two decades, the global population of forcibly displaced people has more than doubled, from 34 million in 1997 to 71 million in 2018. Amid this growing crisis, refugees and the organizations that assist them have turned to technology as an important resource, and technology can and should play an important role in solving problems in humanitarian settings. In this report, the authors analyze technology uses, needs, and gaps, as well as opportunities for better using technology to help displaced people and improving the operations of responding agencies. The authors also examine inherent ethical, security, and privacy considerations; explore barriers to the successful deployment of technology; and outline some tools for building a more systematic approach to such deployment. The study approach included a literature review, semi-structured interviews with stakeholders, and focus groups with displaced people in Colombia, Greece, Jordan, and the United States. The authors provide several recommendations for more strategically using and developing technology in humanitarian settings….(More)”.

“Mind the Five”: Guidelines for Data Privacy and Security in Humanitarian Work With Undocumented Migrants and Other Vulnerable Populations


Paper by Sara Vannini, Ricardo Gomez and Bryce Clayton Newell: “The forced displacement and transnational migration of millions of people around the world is a growing phenomenon that has been met with increased surveillance and datafication by a variety of actors. Small humanitarian organizations that help irregular migrants in the United States frequently do not have the resources or expertise to fully address the implications of collecting, storing, and using data about the vulnerable populations they serve. As a result, there is a risk that their work could exacerbate the vulnerabilities of the very same migrants they are trying to help. In this study, we propose a conceptual framework for protecting privacy in the context of humanitarian information activities (HIA) with irregular migrants. We draw from a review of the academic literature as well as interviews with individuals affiliated with several US‐based humanitarian organizations, higher education institutions, and nonprofit organizations that provide support to undocumented migrants. We discuss 3 primary issues: (i) HIA present both technological and human risks; (ii) the expectation of privacy self‐management by vulnerable populations is problematic; and (iii) there is a need for robust, actionable, privacy‐related guidelines for HIA. We suggest 5 recommendations to strengthen the privacy protection offered to undocumented migrants and other vulnerable populations….(More)”.

Meaningfully Engaging Youth in the Governance of the Global Refugee System


Bushra Ebadi at the World Refugee Council Research Paper Series: “Young people aged 15 to 35 comprise one-third of the world’s population, yet they are largely absent from decision-making fora and, as such, unaccounted for in policy making, programming and laws. The disenfranchisement of displaced youth is a particular problem, because it further marginalizes young people who have already experienced persecution and been forcibly displaced.

This paper aims to demonstrate the importance of including displaced youth in governance and decision making, to identify key barriers to engagement that displaced youth face, and to highlight effective strategies for engaging youth. Comprehensive financial, legal, social and governance reforms are needed in order to facilitate and support the meaningful engagement of youth in the refugee and IDP systems. Without these reforms and partnerships between youth and other diverse stakeholders, it will be difficult to achieve sustainable solutions for forcibly displaced populations and the communities that host them….(More)”.

Raw data won’t solve our problems — asking the right questions will


Stefaan G. Verhulst in apolitical: “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the questions, and only five minutes finding the answers,” is a famous aphorism attributed to Albert Einstein.

Behind this quote is an important insight about human nature: Too often, we leap to answers without first pausing to examine our questions. We tout solutions without considering whether we are addressing real or relevant challenges or priorities. We advocate fixes for problems, or for aspects of society, that may not be broken at all.

This misordering of priorities is especially acute — and represents a missed opportunity — in our era of big data. Today’s data has enormous potential to solve important public challenges.

However, policymakers often fail to invest in defining the questions that matter, focusing mainly on the supply side of the data equation (“What data do we have or must have access to?”) rather than the demand side (“What is the core question and what data do we really need to answer it?” or “What data can or should we actually use to solve those problems that matter?”).

As such, data initiatives often provide marginal insights while at the same time generating unnecessary privacy risks by accessing and exploring data that may not in fact be needed at all in order to address the root of our most important societal problems.

A new science of questions

So what are the truly vexing questions that deserve attention and investment today? Toward what end should we strategically seek to leverage data and AI?

The truth is that policymakers and other stakeholders currently don’t have a good way of defining questions or identifying priorities, nor a clear framework to help us leverage the potential of data and data science toward the public good.

This is a situation we seek to remedy at The GovLab, an action research center based at New York University.

Our most recent project, the 100 Questions Initiative, seeks to begin developing a new science and practice of questions — one that identifies the most urgent questions in a participatory manner. Launched last month, the goal of this project is to develop a process that takes advantage of distributed and diverse expertise on a range of given topics or domains so as to identify and prioritize those questions that are high impact, novel and feasible.

Because we live in an age of data and much of our work focuses on the promises and perils of data, we seek to identify the 100 most pressing problems confronting the world that could be addressed by greater use of existing, often inaccessible, datasets through data collaboratives – new forms of cross-disciplinary collaboration beyond public-private partnerships focused on leveraging data for good….(More)”.

The 100 Questions Initiative: Sourcing 100 questions on key societal challenges that can be answered by data insights


100Q Screenshot

Press Release: “The Governance Lab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering announced the launch of the 100 Questions Initiative — an effort to identify the most important societal questions whose answers can be found in data and data science if the power of data collaboratives is harnessed.

The initiative, launched with initial support from Schmidt Futures, seeks to address challenges on numerous topics, including migration, climate change, poverty, and the future of work.

For each of these areas and more, the initiative will seek to identify questions that could help unlock the potential of data and data science with the broader goal of fostering positive social, environmental, and economic transformation. These questions will be sourced by leveraging “bilinguals” — practitioners across disciplines from all over the world who possess both domain knowledge and data science expertise.

The 100 Questions Initiative starts by identifying 10 key questions related to migration. These include questions related to the geographies of migration, migrant well-being, enforcement and security, and the vulnerabilities of displaced people. This inaugural effort involves partnerships with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the European Commission, both of which will provide subject-matter expertise and facilitation support within the framework of the Big Data for Migration Alliance (BD4M).

“While there have been tremendous efforts to gather and analyze data relevant to many of the world’s most pressing challenges, as a society, we have not taken the time to ensure we’re asking the right questions to unlock the true potential of data to help address these challenges,” said Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer of The GovLab. “Unlike other efforts focused on data supply or data science expertise, this project seeks to radically improve the set of questions that, if answered, could transform the way we solve 21st century problems.”

In addition to identifying key questions, the 100 Questions Initiative will also focus on creating new data collaboratives. Data collaboratives are an emerging form of public-private partnership that help unlock the public interest value of previously siloed data. The GovLab has conducted significant research in the value of data collaboration, identifying that inter-sectoral collaboration can both increase access to information (e.g., the vast stores of data held by private companies) as well as unleash the potential of that information to serve the public good….(More)”.

Data Protection and Digital Agency for Refugees


Paper by Dragana Kaurin: “For the millions of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution every year, access to information about their rights and control over their personal data are crucial for their ability to assess risk and navigate the asylum process. While asylum seekers are required to provide significant amounts of personal information on their journey to safety, they are rarely fully informed of their data rights by UN agencies or local border control and law enforcement staff tasked with obtaining and processing their personal information. Despite recent improvements in data protection mechanisms in the European Union, refugees’ informed consent for the collection and use of their personal data is rarely sought. Using examples drawn from interviews with refugees who have arrived in Europe since 2013, and an analysis of the impacts of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal on migration, this paper analyzes how the vast amount of data collected from refugees is gathered, stored and shared today, and considers the additional risks this collection process poses to an already vulnerable population navigating a perilous information-decision gap….(More)”.