Big data for humanity

As a foreman of the Refugee Futures Initiative, professor Andrej Zwitter plans to analyze ‘big data’ to further refugee integration.

In the year 2015 alone, as much data was produced as there had been since the beginning of written history through 2014, according to Zwitter, a professor of Ethics and International Relations. With that in mind, Zwitter has created a project utilizing big data to raise awareness about the current influx of refugees and to support inclusion policies.

Improve the world

With the help of an ever-growing amount of big data, Zwitter and his colleagues intend for the project to become a tool for politicians and social organizations to map, facilitate and clarify what opportunities there could be for refugees to make a future for themselves in Europe.

‘The idea is that data scientists could start using their skills and capabilities to improve the world rather than to just fulfill their duties as engineers’, Zwitter explains.

The project – Refugee Futures Initiative – will focus on integration, acceptance and policymaking connected to the refugee crisis instead of on the data regarding refugees themselves. ‘The refugee influx is one problem, but another problem that we see as part of this refugee future initiative is more long-term, namely how to include refugees in our society.’

Green Dot

‘The keyword is refugee inclusion’, he says. ‘Our ethical obligation in general dictates that we can’t let people die at our borders. It’s as simple as that’, Zwitter argues.

‘We can’t let people die at our borders’
The project aims to analyze the sentiments of the general public. For example, if the citizens of Groningen are very pro-refugee, public data would reflect this opinion and it would make sense to put more refugees here, Zwitter explains.

In addition to public sentiments, Zwitter also hopes to answer questions concerning refugee housing and jobs by scrutinising heaps of publicly available data on social media such as Twitter and Facebook – the so-called big data – to see where the public could benefit from refugees who are trained in certain fields, such as laborers or doctors. ‘With this information, we could make a map that shows a green dot where refugees will have a future, for instance in Groningen. This would help policymakers ease integration.’

Angry Birds

On the question of whether using personal information for this project wouldn’t offend people’s sense of privacy, Zwitter says that through using certain apps, particularly games, many people are unaware of the information they already give away freely. If you are concerned about that, don’t use the Angry Birds app, he recommends. ‘It installs cookies in your web browser and sells your personal information to advertisers. Our project will not use personalized data about individuals.’

What is big data?

It’s an all-encompassing term that covers volume, velocity and variety. People are producing more data every day, filling the Internet with nonsense like images of cats and restaurant reviews, as well as sharing their opinions on current affairs. That provides data analysts with enormous volumes of publicly available information to play with.

The increasing use of social media and the Internet in general means data is being generated with velocity, the speed with which data is produced every day. Through intelligent computer programming, researchers are able to process the enormous amounts data in real time. However, big data consists of a wide variety of forms of information, from YouTube videos to Twitter messages. ‘And the big task is picking the right sources’, Zwitter explains.

Zwitter isn’t so worried about filtering through to find the right information, but he is concerned with making sure that the project sends the right message. ‘Findings are findings, so from a scientific perspective, obviously we will take what we can get’, he says. ‘But from a political perspective, I do hope it raises awareness for the needs and vulnerabilities of refugees.’ Ideally, the research could give society an opportunity for self-reflection and understanding rather than remaining afraid of a fictitious Schrödinger’s Refugee: ‘both lazy and stealing your job at the same time’, he jokes.

Backers and financing

Zwitter hopes the European Commission and other similar parties will finance the project so that it can be implemented in the right sectors. ‘You can’t bring refugees to an area where people are not accepting them.’

Although a pilot study has not yet been financed, Zwitter has already gathered 25 colleagues who are willing to participate. Together with Ulrich Mans (University of Leiden), Roberto Zicari and Karsten Tolle (Goethe University of Frankfurt) and Richard Dent (Cambridge University), he hopes to find funders to initiate this pilot study and take the project from there. In May 2016, they hope to have enough backers to continue the project.