How data can help migrants

By Andrew Young, Knowledge Director, The Governance Lab, New York University

Conflict is displacing more and more people across West Africa, including nearly 2.4 million people who have been forced from their homes by the Boko Haram insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin alone. People living in coastal areas face coastal degradation and erosion. Desertification in the western region of the Sahel is leading to significant livelihood and food security risks. Meanwhile the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is making the situation worse.

Actors across sectors are experimenting with new data innovations to improve decision-making on migration and fill gaps in official statistics and traditional data sources. Non-traditional data, including privately held information, can complement traditional data sources that are not always timely or sufficient. Innovative uses of data can help us forecast and understand macro-level trends and developments in migration flows and the drivers of these phenomena, such as labour market disruptions. They can also support a better understanding of migrants’ experience, through more demographically-disaggregated information and more insight into “data invisibles” who are not represented in official statistics.

Specifically, new forms of data collaboration are enabling the use of data from telecoms, social media companies and satellite imagery to enhance civil registration procedures for migrants, forecast the effects of sea level rises on migration and nowcast international migration flows, for example. The Big Data for Migration Alliance (BD4M) was established to accelerate the responsible and ethical use of non-traditional data sources and methods. The BD4M is experimenting with new co-design and prototyping methods to tap into global expertise and advance more responsible and effective data collaboration to support data innovations for migration. The first of these “studios” investigated how to design data collaboration to better understand human mobility and migration in West Africa, including by leveraging non-traditional data.

Actors face persistent challenges in advancing innovative uses of non-traditional data to improve migration policymaking while also providing greater autonomy and agency to migrants at key moments of the data life cycle. It is a task that spans initial data collection, data processing, sharing, analysis and (re)use of data. However, more research and evidence is needed to advance digital self-determination in a way that respectfully empowers data subjects, including migrants.

The recently established International Network on Digital Self Determination (IDSD), an interdisciplinary consortium studying and designing ways to engage in trustworthy data spaces and ensure human centric approaches, is spearheading this work. The IDSD is also promoting and facilitating the use of collaborative studios to convene domain experts and migrants to define strategies that make sure that the data subjects themselves are aware of emerging uses of data that concerns them and are positioned to influence the design and objectives of new data innovations. By tapping into migrants’ perspectives, actors can ensure their data collaboration efforts are aligned with the priorities of their intended beneficiaries and conduct their work with the type of clear social license that is often lacking in the space.

Through our research and experiments with the studio methodology, we see three main priorities.

First, the global migration ecosystem needs new governance frameworks to guide the responsible use of data from non-traditional sources (e.g. the private sector). Establishing these frameworks will require public, private, and civil sector actors to partner locally and internationally. Governance frameworks can provide a roadmap for complex data partnerships between sectors.

Second, institutional leaders should explore new mechanisms to ensure that migrants are “in the loop”, and that decision-making is participatory and inclusive to support more self-deterministic use of data and technology for migration – that it brings in migrants’ perspectives and experience. Although the field currently lacks an evidence base and established practices to effectively engage migrants, promising initiatives like “data assemblies” do exist.

Finally, the field needs new business models and sustainability strategies to incentivise and maintain private-sector engagement and institutional commitments to data innovation. Some private sector actors participate in public-interest data collaboration on a pro-bono basis, while others have established new models for selling or licensing aggregated datasets or layers to public-interest institutions. An expanded inquiry into the potential business case for data collaboration across different regions and industries could provide clear and compelling reasons for participation.