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Can something like big data analytics be used to map ongoing migration trends, summarize sentiments in the involved nations, or even predict future areas of conflict? Big data can be done in numerous ways, so it’s essential that it’s done right when the context of migration aid is pertinent.

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What exactly is this ‘big data’? Also, what specifically does it entail in regards to a ‘refugee crisis’? The concept of volume is something that shows up quite a bit in conversations about both digital data and migration. Influxes of migrants seem to be happening all the time, although swells and floods do peak and trough. At the same time, there’s a veritable data deluge across pools of information, flows of facts, and streams of data, all coming from various official reports or leaks. All of this can mean that public discourse and policy deliberations about migration turn unhelpful, and even dehumanizing, as well as stir up emotions about the emerging fields of data practices. The sheer volume of available digital data is often assumed to be one of the trademark ‘3 Vs’.

Big data is available in many different forms across a wide range of topics. It’s also collected seamlessly around the world by programs and electronic devices, continuously generated with a thundering velocity. However, how can something like big data analytics be used to map ongoing migration trends, summarize sentiments in the involved nations, or even predict future areas of conflict?

Gaps In Data

Those who develop and plan policies regarding refugees and the distribution of resources or aid have long found statistics to be vital to their work. Vital data sets that professionals use in comprehending the context and patterns of migration use currently vital data sets such as national population censuses, sample surveys, and administrative sources such as population registers. However, each has its own set of methodological challenges, with findings ranging from partial and temporal to contingent at best according to Immigration Solutions. Furthermore, many establishments discover that quite a few developing countries simply don’t have the resources for collecting statistics, and even the ones that can don’t easily or typically share their data among the needed agencies or departments.

Concerns have also been raised by development organizations about how a lot of data is not useful and there are many gaps in it. For instance, at the time of writing, there was no reliable data at the time about how many young refugees were living in urban areas, even though estimates suggest these numbers to be high. Refugee youth groups tend to live rather anonymously, and they are at higher risk of exploitation than other groups. Recently, a UNHCR conference explored the potential for using data collected from the handheld devices of young refugees, like tablets or smartphones, so that an attempt could be made at learning the movement and evolving dynamics of such groups. This was just one of many humanitarian projects that have started looking into the possibilities for the collection, analysis, synthesis, shaping, and sharing of big data. This kind of big data is any huge set of information collected automatically with sources traced to software and digital devices.

The Use Of ‘Big Data’ In Terms Of Migration Aid

‘Big data’ can be used in numerous ways, and the United Nations is the central player when it comes to migration aid. UNITE is the name of their website, where collaboration throughout the global community of data scientists is instigated. The UNHCR has a ProGres registration database which captures, confirms, and updates data about displaced populations, with biometric identification systems growing in use. There’s even a ‘Winter Operations Cell’ that tries to predict who is likely to move, in what volume, the help they need, and where they might go, all based on weather and climate data. Efforts are also being made to track migration patterns through things like IP addresses, geotagged activity on social media, and even call records from mobile phone service providers.

‘Big Data’ Has Its Hazards

Data practices such as these, when used properly, can certainly better facilitate adversity or conflict mapping, allowing for the improved flow of aid to those who need it most. Having said that, it must be remembered that such data can also be used to empower those seeking to manage populations through control and surveillance. It’s imperative that any digital processes and projects undertaken be done so with respect for privacy rights, personal security, and civil liberties. Ensuring the protections and security of refugee data is critical in an age where many governmental powers are expanding in terms of data access. Whether it’s NSA or the GCHQ, how can anyone really know if supposed assurances about only collecting ‘trends’ or ‘metadata’ are truly honored? An even more subtle danger is that while statistics should be based on hard numbers in terms of classifications and quantifications of populations and people, the science is never truly impartial, but subjectively embroiled in social and political contexts. Researchers must adhere to ethical responsibilities in choosing when data is used, how it is attained and treated, where it’s store, and whom it is shared with.

The hazards of data use, management, and manipulation are not at all theoretical. If the wrong parties get access to individual, private, or personal data, then refugees are quite susceptible to persecution, violence, and discrimination. Both state actors and non-state parties can conduct online practices that are not only malevolent, but capable of reaching and harming refugees, either in their original country or extraterritorially. Statistics and data manipulation, combined with leaks in host countries, can increase the chances that refugees become targets for harassment, discrimination, and racism, as such misinformation is used to lend credence to nativist tendencies and even xenophobia.

As the UNHCR data protection policy illustrates, the practices and policies regarding data protection in this field are still emerging. However, ensuring consistent maintenance of standards across all players and establishments that handle global migration data is going to be a constant challenge. Big data discoveries prove spotty most of the time, considering that Internet use and smartphone ownership are far from consistent. The next article posted is going to delve into the relationship between both quantitative and qualitative methodologies for data collection surrounding refugees. It will emphasize the critical roles of anthropological research, on-the-ground information collection, and conveying the actual human experiences of refugees and those that deal with them.


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