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Unlocking the potential of innovative data sources, tools, and methods in Africa: Current trends and prospects for better information in migration-related policymaking

Posted on 1st of August 2022 by Niklas Sievers, Alina Menocal

Introduction: Pioneering migration data innovation initiatives in the African context

In the information age, more data are produced than ever before. Over the past years, their volume nearly doubled from an estimated 33 zettabytes in 2018 to 71 zettabytes in 2021 – equal to the compound storage of 71 billion 1TB laptops. Until 2025, this amount is expected to grow to a total of 180 zettabytes (Statista, 2021). The expert-level event “Harnessing data Innovation for migration policy in Europe and Africa”, held in Berlin on 29 November 2021, demonstrated once more that the exponential increase in the availability of data and processing capabilities due to new technologies opened up an array of opportunities across several policy domains, including migration and human mobility, environmental sustainability, international development and global public health.

However, many states across the world have not yet been able to exploit the full potential of these innovations to tackle existing information gaps for decision-making. Still, Africa has pioneered several pilots and even legal frameworks for this matter. How can practitioners and researchers from across sectors tap into this potential to understand migration-related phenomena better? In this blog, we reflect on three key trends of migration data innovation at the nexus with other topical policy challenges and review some of the recent initiatives using innovative data sources, methods, and tools to inform migration-related policymaking across African countries and regions. Furthermore, we conclude by laying out a programme to further harness ethical and responsible data innovation in migration and human mobility based on the key recommendations of the 2021 BD4M expert-level event.

The data “booster” of the COVID-19 pandemic – harnessing data innovation at the nexus of migration and public health

The lion’s share of the initiatives using new forms of data – such as those collected by satellite imagery, social media, mobile network operators, and artificial intelligence (AI) methodologies – in the African context has been implemented over the past ten years. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to several research efforts to inform policymaking at the nexus of public health and human mobility, particularly on the key question concerning the extent to which people comply with social distancing measures. For instance, Ọlámíjùwọ́n (2020) analysed Google maps data with AI methodologies to monitor local mobility during lockdown hours in Johannesburg, South Africa. On the national level, the Flowminder Foundation measured the movement of (anonymised) mobile phones to estimate the effectiveness of lockdown modes in Ghana (2020a), Namibia (2020b), and Sierra Leone (2020c). Further, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) has been developing impact evaluations and forecasts around the virus spread considering different public policies and human mobility in Cameroun, South Africa, Rwanda, Ghana, and Senegal. On the international level, by using Twitter data WorldPop (2021) illustrated the potential pathways of spreading the Omicron variant, first detected in South Africa in November 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly increased the demand for quickly available and accurate insights on human mobility on all local, regional, national and global levels. At the same time, the African context brought several innovative research approaches to light to support further pre-pandemic policy goals. For instance, analyses of satellite data helped to monitor the spread of Malaria in West Africa (Guerra et al., 2019), and the usage of mobile phone data provided insights on the proliferation of HIV (Gavrić, 2019) and Cholera (Azman et al., 2013) across the continent.

Measuring and forecasting climate change-induced migration

The second trend we observed for the increasing usage of innovative data sources, tools and methods to inform migration policy is at the nexus with climate change. In this strand, the innovative usage of mobile phone data complemented more traditional data sources – specifically, labour market and socio-economic data sets – in identifying seasonal mobility in Senegal (Zufiria et al., 2018). Further, the combination of various data sets from censuses, terrestrial data, and open maps provided insights on climate change-induced migration patterns on the African continent (Peri & Sasahara, 2019). The Digital Earth Africa is monitoring Earth observation (EO) data across the entire continent, which is accessible for the public, providing insights for decision-making around prevention and planning considering environmental and weather trends, agriculture, land use, water availability and quality, and human mobility (Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, 2020; Amazon Web Services, 2019).

In innovative methods, the University of Valencia, through the DeepCube project, has been using artificial intelligence for coming up with causal data discovery to understand the drivers impacting climate change-induced displacements (DeepCube, n.d.); and the team of the European Asylum Support Office has developed a forecasting methodology, including climate change-related variables affecting potential emigration numbers across countries (Melachrinos et al., 2020).

Improving diaspora engagement and integration policies

National population estimates are key for policymaking in several policy areas beyond migration, such as public health, social welfare, housing, traffic, education, and elderly care. In cases of information gaps on national population estimates, innovative data sources, methods, and tools have increasingly contributed over the past years. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a first step after the last census conducted in 1984, Boo et al. (2021), with the support of the administration, provided estimates of the national population - including disaggregated information on sex and age – by combining geospatial and survey data. WorldPop, with other think tanks, have counted new population distribution in several countries such as South Sudan, bringing together mobility surveys and satellite data with models that can find and capture uncertainty due to the lack of validation with administrative data.

Integration policies can be a product of bottom-up approaches using innovative methods. In Uganda, UN Global Pulse, with the support of the Government, has deployed AI methodologies on radio content to not only analyse the expressed sentiments towards migrants in the country but also clarify any goods and services’ needs regarding new settlements in remote areas at a higher time-frequency (Hidalgo-Sanchis, 2018). Further, this country and Tanzania and South Sudan have experienced other bottom-up approaches through crowdsourcing in OpenStreetMap, where the communities have been mapping their needs and assets regarding the displacements and settlements via their mobile phones (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, 2021).

For planning in the long run and taking advantage of new technologies, Ghana passed the Statistical Service Act (Act 1003) in 2019, enabling the use of partner institutions’ data as official statistics after the ONS revision. This procedure has been established in other countries such as South Africa. The Ghana Statistics Service analyses today data towards human mobility for social and economic development based on the project Data for Good with Flowminder and Vodafone Ghana, which provides mobility trends through mobile phone data (Daily Graphic, 2019).

Diaspora engagement remains a challenge and not only in Africa. In some countries, there is a limitation on registering the diasporas. In others, emigrants prefer not to register in the consulates due to the reasons they migrated. Still, there are good practices worth describing. Kenya has pioneered trying to estimate the diaspora via remittances and an onomastic approach. The Equity Bank in Kenya estimates the number of remittances by determining the origins of names in their person-to-person transfers and only including those coming from names of Kenyan origin (IOM, 2020).

In the area of diaspora’s social investment, Zimbabweans living abroad have made worldwide efforts to give online capacity building in areas where there is a match between the country’s development needs and the emigrates’ skills and professional profiles (Mugwagwa, 2014). In the case of Senegal, the Programme of Support for Solidarity Initiatives for Development (PAISD) mobilises short-term capacity-building missions for the public sector in education, agribusiness, health, environment, communications, and tourism (African Foundation for Development, 2020). The program has a website for applying as a Senegalese expert living abroad and has implemented more than 65 missions and 3,000 registrants worldwide (PAISD, 2020).  

Prospects for better information at scale in migration-related policymaking and beyond

Covid-19, climate change, integration policies – all three policy areas are closely intertwined with migration policy on local, regional, national and global levels. This blog post has introduced a number of initiatives in the African context, and although we could observe an increasing use of innovative data sources, methods, and tools over the past decade, a considerable share has been conducted by institutes based outside of the African continent.

Since 2018, the BD4M has implemented several activities aimed at accelerating the ethical and responsible use of innovative data sources, tools, and methods to advance more humane and effective migration policies. The practitioners’ handbook “Harnessing data innovation for migration policy” (forthcoming in early 2022) collates this experience and provides concise and accessible guidance to stakeholders interested in expanding their capacities beyond the scope of traditional migration statistics.

More specifically, the BD4M expert-level event “Harnessing data Innovation for migration policy in Europe and Africa” in November 2021 in Berlin, Germany, brought forward a few key recommendations for facilitating the responsible and ethical acceleration of deploying migration data innovation in 2022. Together with the African Union, the BD4M will address African requests for innovative data or methods for their most urgent and strategic human mobility issues. This will focus on joint efforts to strengthen migration data innovation capacities in Africa at all levels – local, national, regional and continental – and roll out a programme revolving around the three focus areas of capacity-strengthening, awareness-raising, and private-public partnerships.



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