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Enhanced migration measures from a multidimensional perspective

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A data-driven approach to the migration challenge

Leveraging information from mobile phones, social media and remote sensing services, the EU-funded HumMingBird project is challenging perceptions about migration and broadening our understanding of this complex issue.

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Migration continues to dominate the media and political spotlight in Europe, generating headlines and policy debate in equal measure. However, these discussions are often driven more by rhetoric than facts. “To be effective and constructive, debate and decision-making must be based on reliable evidence about the demographic, economic, environmental and political drivers of migration,” says Tuba Bircan, an interdisciplinary researcher at VUB in Belgium. With the support of the HumMingBird (Enhanced migration measures from a multidimensional perspective) project, coordinated by KU Leuven in Belgium, Bircan is leading an effort to provide such evidence – and to do so, she’s taking a deep dive into data.

New insights into migration

Using an interdisciplinary team and a multidimensional approach to research, the project garnered noteworthy new insights into the drivers, practices and consequences of migration. By leveraging remote sensing analytics, researchers identified the impact that extreme weather events have on migration patterns. “In Somalia, where immediate internal displacement tends to occur in response to rapid-onset events such as high-impact floods, migrants are likely to eventually return,” explains Bircan. “Conversely, individuals strive to resist the aftermath of slow-onset events such as droughts, and are less likely to return if displaced.” Researchers also mined social media and mobile phone data to better understand migration indicators where official statistics are limited, along with air-traffic data to create estimates for seasonal migration. They also used Twitter data to create migrant friendliness indices for communities across various European regions. “Integrating mobile phone data with social media and satellite data has proven to be invaluable in gaining a comprehensive understanding of complex indicators such as cross-border mobility and residential segregation,” remarks Bircan. Working in collaboration with the EU-funded OPPORTUNITIES project, the HumMingBird project conducted a comprehensive public opinion survey. The survey explores the dynamic interplay between how migrant groups are represented in the media and how government and society respond to immigration.

Informed, data-driven discussions on migration

The HumMingBird project’s groundbreaking research challenges existing perceptions of migration. “Traditional research has failed to capture the diversity and dynamism of the migration experience, which ultimately undermines the agency of migrants,” explains Bircan. She notes that, contrary to popular belief, the majority of migrants do not have predefined notions of the specific country they aim to reach. Instead, the data shows that their destination is influenced by their experiences during the journey. “With this evidence in hand, we can start to move beyond the rhetoric of ‘sending countries’ and acknowledge the significant role that the migration route plays and adjust our policies accordingly,” she adds. The project’s results are met with great interest by policymakers, including those at the EU level. Furthermore, many of the project’s findings, insights and advice will soon be published in a new book. Entitled ‘Data Science for Migration and Mobility’, the book offers an in-depth look at the use of these tools within the realm of migration and mobility. “We are confident that this book will foster interdisciplinary collaboration and facilitate informed, data-based discussions on migration amongst researchers, practitioners and policymakers alike,” concludes Bircan. The research team is now turning its attention to exploring future migration scenarios and what they could mean for national and EU policies.


HumMingBird, data, data science, migration, social media, remote sensing, migrants, OPPORTUNITIES, immigration, mobility

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