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Big Data and Refugees and The Role of Phone for Migrants

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At first glance, phones have two main roles for migrants:

  1. Keeping in touch with family and creating social bonds in host-societies: Leaving their countries, their homes, their friends and family, it is crucial for migrants to keep some kind of emotional stability and comfort, and this need can only be filled by being connected, by being able to reassure their loved ones and making sure that everything is fine back home (Panagakos & Horst, 2006; Horst & Taylor, 2014)
  2. Emotional intimacy: Thomas and Lim (2011) discovered through their study that the use of smartphones can considerably enhance migrant’s wellbeing and health, as it has a real psychological effect that deeply enhances their overall journey and ability to adapt to their host society, make friends, find a job, etc. Other authors, such as Gillespie et al. (2016), take step back and look at things from a different angle. Although they recognize the benefits and positive aspect of social media on the refugee crisis, and do not deny its role in the planning and navigating of the whole journey, they take a more critical and distant approach. According to them, the smartphone is ‘a double-edged sword’: It might be of big use when accessing vital resources – such as legal information, medical information, translations and shelters – but it however leaves a digital trace, which makes migrants vulnerable to state surveillance, extremist groups, and other organizations that might not have their best interests in mind.

Big Data and Refugees

Those risks did not prevail big organisations such as the UNHCR to take advantage of technology and to go beyond the usual social and digital platforms. They started looking at the effectiveness of Big Data, and how it could affect displaced groups of people. Statistics and numbers are highly useful when it comes to outline and development, aid and policy strategies. However, according to a research article on Open Migration (Cheesman, 2017), the gap lies in a lack of useful and reliable data. The numbers of refugees living in urban settings is a very approximate number, and it is still changing day after day, which makes it hard for development organizations to make relevant predictions and act accordingly. The UNHCR and other entities are constantly working towards getting more precise numbers, in order for them to grasp the evolving dynamics and movements of these groups. They are trying to tap into the possibility for assembling, analysing, compiling and forging big data.

But How Could

Big data potentially have a major effect on groups of refugees? A couple of projects are being put in place, mainly by the UNHCR. Their ProGres registration database (UNHCR, 2008) uses biometric identification technologies to gather data about refugees, store it and analyse it. Iris scans are often utilised as a tool to establish the identities of refugees, as their biometrics are encoded into aid cards equipped with digital encoders and vouchers which are given to them. These cards also allow consumption and behavioural patterns to be monitored and forecasted. An example of how this data could be used later on would be the “winter operation cell” project (Karmi, 2016), which is a futuristic initiative that aims at using weather forecasts to make predictive analysis about how many people are likely to move and in which directions. The international organization of migration has even established the DTM – Displacement Tracking Matrix – which contributes in sharing information on displaced groups and related emergency situations. Three main IT systems have been developed in Europe to help reduce the damages of the refugee crisis:

  1. Eurodac, a centralised EU databased that processes and analyses the fingerprints of refugees
  2. SIS II: Schengen Information System which is the largest information system focusing on public security and law enforcement cooperation
  3. VIS: Visa Information Systems which allows an exchange between the Schengen states when it comes to visa data and who is visiting their respective areas.

Big data and connectivity has had a major impact on different areas of the lives of the refugees, such as:

  • Internet connectivity and communication
  • Migrant safety
  • Fundraising and aids
  • Housing
  • Healthcare
  • Integration and settling
  • Jobs matching

Digital Identities, Finance and Blockchain

The use of the digital transformation at the service of refugees does not stop here. After organizations, some countries and governments saw an opportunity to provide refugees with something they needed more than anything else: A social and financial identity. An article by MIT technology review (Orcutt, 2017) deep dives into Finland’s digital money system for asylum seekers, and proves that the blockchain technology could provide a financial identity to the unbanked. The cryptographic ledger could be an extremely effective solution for displaced groups of people to get back on their feet and advance in society. The process was developed by a Helsinki-based start-up called MONI, and the way they did it is by having the Finnish Immigration Service providing refugees – which did not have bank accounts – prepaid Mastercards (As opposed to the traditional cash disbursement system). The card is associated with an exclusive digital identity stored on the Blockchain. Today, the program already has several thousands of active cardholders. For Mastercard, this was the junction between global need and digital technology, which paved the way for innovation in social impact. Another case would be the UN’s partnership with Microsoft and Accenture, as seen in this Accenture case study (2016). Their objective: To create digital IDs for people in need. It is built around the blockchain technology, and was unveiled in the ID2020 summit in New York, in June 2017.It also builds on Accenture’s existing biometrics identity management platform, and will be tested with aid agencies in the near future.

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