Why should social scientists in migration studies care about big data?

By: William Allen, Research Officer, Migration Observatory

Earlier this year, Universities and Science Minister David Willetts announced that the UK government was releasing £73 million for research which would harness the economic and social potential of Big Data. This term carries a great deal of buzz in business and academic spheres, although data and their analysis are obviously not new: whether as Census statistics, interview texts, or household surveys, data come in many familiar forms to social scientists. But ‘bigness’ often refers to three characteristics that differentiate it from so-called ‘small’ data: volume, variety, and velocity.

matrixVolume relates to the sheer size of datasets that potentially include millions of records. These datasets can also feature information that is drawn from many different sources (variety) as well as instantaneously aggregated as new data are constantly being created (velocity). The usefulness of such datasets depends on your perspective and purpose. In his widely cited 2008 Wired Magazine article, Chris Anderson rhetorically asked ‘who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves’. But do they? Others argue that data never exist in ‘raw’ forms but rather are influenced by researchers who, whether intentionally or not, select and construct them in certain ways.

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Norway’s not so cuddly welfare state

By: Sarah Spencer, Senior Fellow

Photo by Hans-Petter Fjeld

Photo by Hans-Petter Fjeld

Who might we expect to be more caring of migrants in need of health care than Norway, its welfare state renowned for comprehensive, cradle to the grave protection? Not so, it seems, if they are among the estimated 10,000 – 32,000 residents in Norway whose immigration status is irregular, whether adult or child. While law reform in Sweden extended irregular migrants’ access to health care in 2013, Norway’s trajectory since a rule change in 2011 has been the other way.

Emerging findings from a three year study on the provision of services to irregular migrants (PROVIR), shared at an Oxford round-table last week, revealed a child can be denied an operation by doctors required to take into account their possible removal from the country, notwithstanding that, with a further application pending, removal may never take place.  Patients can be deterred from seeking care by the cost of consulting a GP or the questioning of sceptical administrative staff. Some defer seeking treatment until their legal status is confirmed. Others borrow a friend’s residence permit or choose a doctor with a foreign name, hoping to find a sympathetic ear – findings which will sound familiar to those who, like Médicins du Monde or PICUM, monitor access to care for irregular migrants in Europe. Doctors in Norway, as in other jurisdictions, do not welcome the intrusion of immigration factors into their clinical role.

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Integration: a European research agenda

By: Ben Gidley, Associate Professor

In my contribution to Migration: The COMPAS Anthology, which discussed the concept of integration, I concluded with a series of unanswered questions which I think researchers have a duty to address. In this blog post, I take up those issues in order to introduce recent and current research by COMPAS and other scholars that starts to address these questions. I argue that these efforts constitute the research agenda on integration in the coming period.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFirst, I asked, how can we go beyond the limits of methodological nationalism to understand the local scale at which integration occurs? As Michael Keith has argued, migrants move between countries, but people move between places. Thinking about each of the domains in which integration occurs, it is clear that they take place at different scales, and most often at a scale smaller than the nation-state. Integration’s “ground zero”, as Ferruccio Pastore puts it, is the local. For instance, socio-economic participation means participation in labour markets which are local, or at most regional, rather than national; social interaction means interaction in real neighbourhoods, streets, libraries, play parks and sports fields. Place matters; space shapes the possibilities and constraints that structure integration processes.

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Numbers and Waves: The Effects of Media Portrayals of Immigrants on Public Opinion in Britain

By: Scott Blinder, Migration Observatory Director and Anne-Marie Jeannet, Department of Social Policy and Intervention

How do people form their impressions of and attitudes toward immigrants? This question is easy to talk about but hard to answer with social scientific research.

speech bubblesImmigration is a vast and complex phenomenon; no one person can possibly apprehend it on their own, even someone who knows many migrants, or is or has been a migrant herself. All of us have views based on some combination of personal experience, second-hand reports, and information we’ve received from various forms of ‘media’ – including newspapers, TV news, and even entertainment – that might expose us to ideas about and examples of migration. It is very hard to figure out where people get their information, and how they combine it over a period of many years to form their beliefs and impressions.

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#Unplugging > Beyond Hyper-Connected Societies

By: Igor Calzada, Future of Cities/COMPAS and Cristobal Cobo, Oxford Internet Institute

Technology is never neutral, it has the potential and capacity to be used socially and politically for quite different purposes, argued Raymond Williams in 1983. Indeed, recently we both watched #HER[1], the newest movie by the filmmaker Spike Jonze, and we realised that this hyper-connected future is already not either as neutral or as far away from our current human interactions. Are we already living at present in such hyper-connected societies and cities as Jonze describes in his film? It sounds surprisingly contradictory how a film that makes you feel anxious about the self-deterministic way technology is dominating our lives can at the same time tele-transport us to the future of the technologies and their impact on our human emotions. Moreover, we could argue that is not that unrealistic a science-fiction storytelling. Could you imagine yourself falling in love just with a voice even if it belongs to an artificial operative system?

computer programmerThe real truth seems to be that the impact on our lives is occurring without us being aware of it. Shall Mr Jonze provoke a reflection on the consequences of the quick, risky (Beck, 2013) and liquid (Bauman, 2013) real-time cities (Kitchin, 2013)? This notion brings us to the so-called debate on the suitability of the Smart Cities (Greenfield, 2013) and their applicability. Are we altering our social relationship because of the new technologies? Moreover, one of us did even not know about the existence of Siri[2], the real device embodying what #HER represents in the fiction movie. Moreover, that could actually be perfectly believable! Another example of the trend on the techno-determinism consequences is the book The Circle by Dave Eggers[3] who reflects on questions about privacy, democracy, and human fragility in the technological broad realm. What happens to us if we “must” be online all the time? To live entirely in the public realm can be a form of solitary confinement. Is there any added value in the possibility of remaining voluntarily #unplugging?

Thus, being conscious about this novel trend and subtle notion for the 21st century societal challenges and their research in societies and cities, we have organized a workshop on 20 June in Oxford supported by The Oxford Research Centre of the Humanities[4] (TORCH). This event aims to gather scholars from different disciplines to debate open and critically about #Unplugging[5]. The idea is to better understand the social and cultural implications of hyper-connected societies and the possible research agendas associated.

Even though we note some dark side effects of the technology (Ippolita, 2008). Our purpose is to draw on a critical social innovation pathway as a transition towards alternative digital humanities practices for our daily life. Nevertheless, there are plenty of pending questions about this subtle notion, that we have clustered as #Unplugging.

For instance: Will unplugging be a right or a privilege of a few? Will being constantly plugged improve our wellbeing and happiness as a society? In addition to the digital divide’s effect on the information society structure, is hyper-connectivity stressing another extra social divides between a few privileged unplugged people and a large plugged crowd (online almost 24/7)? Are we heading towards an individualistic society? Or simply, does it seem that this is the natural way the world will be ruled in micro-communities (in bubbles) in the future? Who designs the technology that we consume? Will devices serve citizens more than the citizens serve the devices? Therefore, are there real alternatives to the technocratic business-led dominant top-down governance model in the Smart Cities? Or, in contrast, is this still wishful progressive thinking?

Is the idea of big data, an empty buzzword? Is it possible to combine an open access civilian deliberative system within a confidential and espionage-obsessed paradigm? Will we see changes in which context-collapsed information will be contestualized to enhance social interactions? Will technological devices be designed based on peoples needs more than on corporate or infrastructure interests? Will the socio-political establishment suffer any shift towards free and community-driven processes? Or by contrast, is the myth of digital democracy (Hindman, 2009) the one debunking popular notions about political discourses in the digital age? Has the Internet neither diminished the audience share of corporate media nor given greater voice to ordinary citizens? Finally, can we anticipate any relevant change in the Smart City practices as a consequence of changes among stakeholder interactions in the definition of a new political economic balance?

To sum up, what are the societal challenges in the current hyper-connected societies? How to explore new policy strategies as well as new research agenda by focusing on the implications of the hyper-connectivity? How do these strategies affect citizenship and diverse range of ethnic groups? Could we start making policies to avoid inequalities due to the digital and social divide among immigrants? Could we use technology in an alternative way for a better social inclusiveness of migrant flows wherever? Could be deliberately design the usage of technology to gain more democratic, diverse, global and equal societies instead of simply hyper-connected? Could technology be in favour of the creation of global multicultural urban communities with the same opportunities? Will our cities design hybrid spaces driven by urban commons where migration issues will be assisted by open and participative policy-making?

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