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How Can We Ensure the Digital Self-Determination of Migrants?

Highlights from the Second Studio on Digital Self Determination and Migration

Posted on 18th of July 2022 by BD4M

By Hannah Chafetz, Uma Kalkar, Marine Ragnet, Stefaan Verhulst and Andrew J. Zahuranec

In 2020, prior to the crisis in Ukraine, the United Nations estimated that 3.6 percent of the population were displaced worldwide with an uptake in migration driven by climate change, conflict, and severe economic and political hardship. In recent years, technological advances that enable data collection, use, and reuse across the migration process by a variety of public, private, and humanitarian sectors have become increasingly central to improve humanitarian response and policy development.

Key questions that have emerged when (re-)using data for migration involve:

  • How to empower migrants at key moments of the data lifecycle such as data collection, sharing, reuse, and analysis, while also enabling more evidence-based migration policy?
  • How to ensure autonomy, agency, and empowerment of the data subjects while facilitating access to data for policymaking?
  • In sum: How to provide for “digital self-determination (DSD).”

To address these questions the Big Data for Migration Alliance and the International Digital Self Determination Network teamed up to hold a set of studios with participants from around the world including members of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, UNICEF, the Berkman Klein Center, the Robert Bosch Foundation and many others (see participant’s list) to take stock of what DSD constitutes for migrants, and how to achieve it through processes, policies, and technologies.

The second Self-Determination Network Studio convened on 30 June 2022. It built on the first studio which aimed to define DSD and sought to discuss ways that digital self-determination (DSD) or migrants could be realized through:

  • processes, such as the creation of a taxonomy of DSD and the migration space or
  • policies, such as a charter to help explain how to enforce DSD principles; and,
  • the use of technologies such as trusted data spaces.

With many participants from the first studio, as well as some new additions, the second studio moved beyond ideation around DSD to discussions on the implementation of living, interactive tools. These prototype sessions explored how a DSD taxonomy, DSD charter, and trusted data space could be created within existing migration and aid-provision frameworks. Overall, three general takeaways emerged among participants:

  1. Context matters in DSD. Migrants face different stresses and challenges based on where they are and where they travel to. Consequently, DSD involves different considerations based on the region and context discussed. Participants emphasized the need to localize DSD by forcing those involved in developing practices and principles to think about whose needs they are responding to. While there may be commonalities globally and within a region, there will be particularities based on the country and community being targeted, as well as the motivations for the migration.
  2. Power asymmetries need to be taken into account in the design process. ‘Power’ and ‘control’ plague the migration data sharing and use spaces and breed information, access, and agency asymmetries. Studio participants affirmed that all institutional and individual stakeholders should recognize the inequalities at play in migration. When developing models for DSD, it is essential to think critically about whose interests are being best served. For example, individuals might ask who is creating a policy or model. What are the processes and who is not involved? How does an organization co-create DSD with key stakeholders from the very beginning? Establishing the pre-conditions for the data value chain can highlight risks and entrenched power imbalances that might have otherwise been missed.
  3. Self-determination may involve a form of negotiation, whereby trusted intermediaries can provide representation when negotiating. Actors with varying and, at times, competing agendas are involved in the DSD process, which may require negotiation for action within the DSD ecosystem. With a high level of involvement from intermediaries present in the DSD ecosystem, including humanitarian organizations, local governments, and advocacy groups, negotiation processes have the tools to effectively represent migrants and vulnerable groups. These intermediaries may oftentimes have agency in determining the conditions of which and how technologies get developed and used. Intermediaries can also play an important role in establishing trust in the process as they decide who will be involved in creating and implementing tools.

In addition to the high-level takeaways, each break-out session generated a few conclusions specific to the tool they were discussing.

I. Taxonomy

Throughout the migration process, various types of migrants, technologies, and stakeholders interact creating multiple steps and procedures. These processes require targeted policy and technology interventions. A taxonomy for the various steps of the migration journey can help align data and technologies with migrant and refugee needs while supporting the principles of DSD.

The notion of a taxonomy to map out and organize the various ways that the migrants’ journey manifests itself was floated in the prior studio and expanded during the second studio, where participants built upon an initial map.

This taxonomy considered migrants’ reasons for leaving their country of origin, language, culture, and tech-literacy differences as well in addition to different reasons to collect data. The group discussed this framework and came away with a few major takeaways, listed below.

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  • First, differing skill levels might impede a migrant’s ability to use technology during their journey. For organizations offering digital tools and technologies to support migrants, it is essential that information is conveyed in a language that they know in simple, straightforward terms that they understand. Overly technical or complicated might impede understanding. Similarly, the studio participants argued that institutions should consider the burden that might be imposed by a lack of deep or widespread digital literacy. It is important for organizations to think about how they can overcome these obstacles and make digital solutions accessible for all throughout their journeys.
  • Second, the taxonomy needs to be tailored to address the unique needs of different types of migrants. These factors include migrant skill level, the reason for migrating, travel distance (inter-continental versus overseas migration), gender, age, and/or legal status. By segmenting the different types of migrants, stakeholders can evaluate the data collection risks at each stage of the migration journey and tailor data collection methods and types of data used for each group and stage of the journey. One possible way forward, suggested by the participants, is to begin the taxonomy by defining the purpose (or purposes) for which they are migrating.
  • Third, intermediaries can play an important role in establishing trust in the migration process. The organizations and institutions that migrants trust to uphold their rights are key in implementing the taxonomy. Because they hold institutional and cultural knowledge, they can more adeptly represent different migrant groups, decide how technologies/digitally mediated processes are designed in ways that consider the interests of the groups they represent, and lead negotiations on behalf of migrants. However, participants emphasized the importance of understanding that some intermediaries may be more legitimate to some groups than others. A civil society group operating in the country where migrants resettle might not be seen as legitimate if it is not known within the migrant community or is seen as representing the interests of non-migrant groups (or specific types of migrants over others). DSD advocates might identify what intermediaries are most trusted and legitimate among migrant groups. Based on this determination, they can then determine who should be involved at each stage of the migration journey and how negotiations with them should occur.
  • Fourth, crisis situations such as COVID-19 impact how, when, where, and why migrants relocate. Resettlement and its associated obstacles have numerous power asymmetries at play, and thus, it is essential to understand the ways in which COVID has impacted the limits of privacy and information sharing in society, especially for underserved people such as migrants. Stakeholders may need to examine how border closures, contact tracing, and other public health measures affect how migrants exist in digital spaces and the autonomy they have, given that much more data is now collected from all residents at a wider level under the remit of public health. Tracing which data is used and how, as well as by who, can illuminate the reuse of specific migrants’ information.
  • Finally, participants stated that establishing data access rules are essential to apply the taxonomy to the data lifecycle. The breakout room noted that many actors can have a role in the handling of migrant data. By identifying the actors who will use the data — such as governments, privately run companies, or NGOs — and how they interact with one another and migrants, the map of varying interests at play can be acknowledged and worked around by policymakers. These can, in turn, be used to develop practices, policies, and procedures that can support migrants at each stage of their journey.

II. Charter

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To fill this gap, this breakout room discussed the feasibility of a generalizable charter that might guide actors involved in the migration process on how they interact with data. This charter would cover the types of data collected, the types of data used, and the principles to uphold. This discussion led to several takeaways, including that:

  • First, a charter must be context specific. The break-out session mentioned that a charter might be an important step following the development of a taxonomy, which would allow stakeholders to have more context on different technologies and their impact on migrants. Such a charter might note the cross-border nature of the migration space and various digital rights and legislation affecting them, as well as the interests of the organizations and individuals immediately involved. Participants noted the importance of including various perspectives in the creation process to make sure affected communities and their interests are at the forefront of the initiative. They urged for the process to not be dominated by actors from the Global North but, rather, all those actors in the affected contexts.
  • Second, the charter would outline the conditions that must be met before we can talk about choice and agency in DSD. Participants noted that the three pillars outlined in the first studio — choice, agency, and participation — should be what any charter seeks to guarantee for migrants. However, crafting principles that meaningfully provide and uphold these rights for migrants requires organizations to be aware of the contexts in which they create policies and procedures and reflect on the ancillary and long-term repercussions of their actions. For instance, participants noted that organizations might put in place procedures to allow for “informed consent” but that migrants might not feel like they have a choice in a humanitarian setting if consenting to data collection is the only way to receive access to basic needs such as food or water. Agency also might be difficult to preserve in contexts where migrants have little control over their daily lives because they are living in temporary accommodation and are dependent on humanitarian assistance of aid organizations.
  • Finally, participants argued that the charter should safeguard migrants’ DSD rights without migrants having to do it themselves. Several breakout room members considered how migrants’ interests might be best preserved and who should participate in drafting a charter. Several suggested a further discussion to reflect on the stakeholders necessary to develop a document that does not add burden to the migrants but rather embeds DSD in the ecosystem. DSD would then become the responsibility of actors surrounding the migrants and not the migrants themselves. The participants asked, for example, if social media and telecommunications companies should be involved, as access to SIM cards and social networks is a key service provided at border crossings to help and track migrant populations. The participants reaffirmed that the burden of adhering to DSD principles should be placed on service providers and data holders, not the data subjects themselves.

III. Data spaces

A data space refers to “an organizational structure with technical and physical components that connects data users and data providers with sources of data.” They establish regulations on data access, sharing, processing, and use to protect data subjects. Trustworthy data spaces for (cross-border) migration can provide a controlled environment to harness the power of data sharing while upholding DSD.

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In this break-out session, participants reflected on the issues of who gathers and has access to data, who uses data, and how different uses of data are viewed by migrants. It examined the need for trustworthy data spaces to provide a controlled environment to harness data sharing while upholding DSD. Participants looked at a simple schema of data spaces to look for where to improve processes for DSD. They came to several conclusions (summarized below but also illustrated in the graphics above):

  • First, scale dependency should be a core consideration. Participants explained that public sector institutions operating over the same territory often have different interests. The constituency of a national institution may be different from that of a city and each may have overlapping responsibilities. In spaces where these frictions are not resolved, antagonistic relationships can ensue that undermine the state’s overall capacity to support migrants. Participants argued that special effort needed to be exerted to make different public agencies complimentary instead of antagonistic. This work includes defining roles and how migrants fit within them.
  • Second, there needs to be better communication around the risks and benefits of providing data. In the discussion, participants discussed varying consent models and noted that “true” consent could be difficult to attain because people often do not understand the risks and benefits associated with providing data to another party. The language used to communicate these facts is either confusing and technical or absent altogether. Participants considered whether it would be possible to develop a “shared language around harm” as a way of putting meaningful parameters around the contractual nature of the benefit. Participants also argued that institutions should be aware of the coercive element of programs and what it means for a data subject to say “no” to a request.
  • Finally, the participants found timeliness remains a core challenge in providing trustworthy data spaces. Data subjects and users can have different expectations around how quickly others can move through the data lifecycle. Some migrants who provide data want to see immediately how their data has been used so they can understand the importance of them providing it. Others may want to see the benefits immediately. As immediate delivery is often not possible, it can be important to appropriately set expectations about what migrants will receive and when in clear, direct language. If promises are not specific and provable, there is a danger of both shattering trust and (in certain contexts) violating laws around data use.

Next Steps

Building from this initial prototyping studio, we will be scoping avenues to actualize these tools and apply them to migration contexts. The next studio will focus on developing specific use cases such as, for example, the displacement due to the war in Ukraine.

Studio 2 Participants

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Those interested in collaborating are encouraged to send an email to Stefaan Verhulst at To learn more about the Big Data 4 Migration Alliance, visit For more information on the International Digital Self-Determination Network, visit


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