One of the challenges to effective migration policy is the need for a comprehensive evidence base.
There are official statistics but the complexity of migration phenomena are such that only part of them can be captured through data.
In addition, there's an emerging pool of potential data sources that could provide valuable, real-time insights, but these remain largely untapped for the time being.
So what are policymakers doing to meet this challenge, and how can science help ensure we have the best tools available to make use of the potential data available?
A new JRC report, "Towards an EU Policy on Migration Data", sets out to answer these questions.
The report was co-authored with the European Commission's department for migration and home affairs and Eurostat. The International Organization on Migration (IOM) Global Migration Data Analysis Centre also contributed to the research on big data.
Where do policymakers source their data?
"We spoke with EU officials working in different policy areas who use data from several sources," explains Carlos Santamaria, a JRC scientist who led the drafting of this report.
Most rely primarily on Eurostat (the European Commission's statistics department) for useful data on things like migration flows and stocks, population, integration indicators, asylum, and residence permits.
Other sources include data collected by EU Member States and aggregated at the EU level by EU Agencies, or data from international organisations, such as the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Carlos adds that "some users collect their own data through targeted surveys or existing research and field networks, or they access open source data."
Where are the gaps?
The JRC scientists also asked policymakers about the major data gaps they encounter when trying to do their work.
As one might expect, they responded with gaps relating to the specific data sources they consulted and the policies that they use that data for.
Some common themes did emerge, and the report identifies four categories of gap across the migration data landscape:
- problems with existing data – which could be related to timing or quality issues, or to data that can't be broken down enough, limiting its use;
- issues with the way the data is presented or disseminated (e.g. unclear assumptions);
- data that's not widely collected or is not easily accessible, such as the educational attainment of refugees;
- potentially useful data that policymakers can't currently access, such as mobile phone data.
How is the EU bridging the gaps?
"There are a number of EU-level initiatives that try to address some of these data gaps," explains Carlos. "For example, the Commission has already presented a proposal to improve the statistics on asylum and managed migration, and is in discussion with Member States for the collection of annual census-type population data in the future."
The report also highlights approaches to make better use of existing data.
One example is the increased use of administrative data by Member States to produce more frequent and timelier migration statistics.
The Commission is also looking into new sources - and 'Big Data' in particular, which includes mobile phone records and information captured by social media applications. "This is where we see science and research having a significant impact," says Carlos.
What can Big Data bring to the table?
"The widespread use of mobile phones and social media - and the timeliness of the insights that can be extracted - make Big Data a good candidate to address some of the gaps of traditional sources," says Carlos. "The JRC is leading efforts to capitalise on its potential to support migration policy," he adds.
Indeed, JRC scientists recently presented a methodology to estimate the number of foreign-born people living in a given country, based on data from the Facebook advertising platform.
However, the scientists recognise that Big Data is not a simple, 'off the shelf' solution.
"This is a nascent field of research, and significant additional effort will be needed before this approach can be systematically exploited," Carlos says.
One major obstacle is that access to this data is not a given. It's normally in the hands of the service provider, whether that's the mobile network or social media platform.
Furthermore, confidentiality and protection of the information have to be guaranteed, and use of the data needs to follow ethical practices.
This means that robust analytical methods need to be developed to understand the data and to deal with existing biases.
The Commission's Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography (KCMD) is working on several activities to overcome these obstacles. Carlos highlights that "adequate data is key to building a comprehensive evidence base and the KCMD will continue to work on that task."
The way forward
The KCMD organises regularly bi-annual workshops on EU migration data, where policymakers from across Commission departments and EU Agencies share the latest developments and data needs.
On Big Data, the KCMD jointly convened the Big Data for Migration Alliance, together with IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre.
Launched in June 2018, the Alliance promotes dialogue and collaboration among policy-makers, international organisations, NGOs, data providers, national statistical offices, and researchers.
It aims to harness the potential of Big Data sources for migration policymaking, while ensuring the ethical use of data and the protection of individual privacy.
JRC report: Towards an EU Policy on Migration Data
- 20 November 2018