UN Migration Chief on Importance of Data
"Misconceptions about immigration can only be dispelled through getting the facts on the table"

Immigration is a heavily politicized issue where misconceptions abound and the only way to dispelled them is to put the facts on the table. That is what Bela Hovy (pictured below), chief of Migration at the United Nations, told Americas Datafest in a recent interview.

Migration data is also crucial to fight abuse and discrimination, said Hovy: "Migrants do face a lot of challenges especially the low skilled migrants. They face discrimination, they face abuse, they are underpaid. There is a lot of that going on."

"But if you do not have the information and the surveys then is very difficult to do something about those abuses and discriminatory practices," explained Hovy.

The UN expert on migration mentioned  that in an environment where employment is scarce many accuse migrants of stealing the natives jobs despite the evidence that shows that migrants are generally employed in areas where the natives do not want to work.

If there were more of that information available from surveys the lives of migrants in destination countries could improve and people could better understand "how migrants contribute rather than compete with natives."

"It is not only to improve the lives of migrants but also to get better information on what is actually going on in the destination countries, the real role of migrants so politicians cannot (...)  exploit the lack of knowledge among the voters," explained Hovy.

We asked Bela Hovy specific questions about migration data so participants at the "Americas Datafest" can better understand the challenges and opportunities they face. This is what he told us:

Q: What are the current challenges in collecting, preprocessing and analyzing migration data? 

A: There are certainly a number of challenges in the fields of population data and demographic data. Probably migration is the most challenging one, the most difficult one. 

If you go to the population census which is in the world the most important source for information on migration data we see that not all countries implement population censuses. Sometimes because of a lack of resources. Sometimes because of a conflict in the country. The census is specially important in developing countries where you have very few other sources of information (...) 

It is supposed to take place every ten years. Sometimes it is postponed and even if it does takes place all the money goes to the logistics of collecting the data in the field and there is very little information for analyzing and processing the migration data.

    Administrative sources are also an important source of migration data. For example if you have systems for registration of work permits or visas. Those are systems that governments use that produce actually some relevant information which is related to migration, the type of visa being issued, the length of stay... 

We see that although much of that information gets collected, very little of that is put online. So there is a lot of information collected at the border or applications for visas or work permits and is really a pity that much of that information stays in the systems and is not most systematically published. 

If we want to know what the impact of migration is on people, on the economy, how remittances are being invested, etc you need to do household surveys because the census or administrative data are not enough but we don't have in the area of migration a dedicated global survey program so that we have a better grasp in particular on the impact of migration on developmental issues

Q: You mentioned that information collected at the border it is not put online or systematically published. Why do you think is that? 

A: These systems are not for statistical purposes but rather administrative purposes. And of course if we are saying you should use administrative sources more systematically to study migration it is not that you have to put individual records online or names, etc, etc. We still talk about statistics, anonymous data. (...) What is potentially a very rich source of information to understand migration is not available for a lot of countries that de facto have quite a bit of immigration going on.

Q: Are there data that you wish were being collected? 

A:  Certainly and it is not just me. In the UN there are recommendations for statistics collection in many areas and in the area of migration (...) we ask that every country as part of the census ask the country of birth as well as the country of citizenship of everyone or asks questions like where were you living 5 years ago (...) If we do not have that information and countries don't have an indication of how long people are staying it is very difficult to give good policy advice. These are very important distinctions in the migrant populations

Another thing is gender and age. Strangely enough although most countries do collect the data they do not provide the tables and that is very basic information and the last example is the level of education. This is what we recommend that countries collect and tabulate. I am sure you are familiar with the term brain drain and that is often referred to the fact that specially smaller developing countries are losing many of their best and brightest because of emigration to developed countries. In order to establish whether that is true or not we need to know what level of education and what skills they have. You have to track the higher skills and see whether they are migrating in greater proportions than the lower skill for example so you can check whether there is brain drain going on.

Unfortunately the level of education skills is very seldom provided by countries on the migrants.
These are very basic characteristics of the migrants that are essential to address policy questions but unfortunately only a minority of countries is providing that information even if it is collected through the census.

Q: Why is that happening? Is it because of a lack of resources? Lack of will?

A: It is partly a lack of resources (...) but the main reason is the big disconnect between policy makers and those who are in charge of data collection. What we see is that migration is never been an area of great political interest but that has changed quite a bit over the course of the past 7-8 years. In part that is because here at the United Nations in the General Assembly there is now quite a bit of attention to the issue of how to manage migration better at a global scale (...).

Unfortunately the higher level of political interest has not been translated into more action on the ground to have better information. So I think what we urgently need is a better dialogue between the policy makers and those who are responsible for data collection.

Q: Are there data that are being collected but remains difficult to use (e.g., paper records, digital records in uncommon file formats, etc)?

A: That is certainly an issue but not as important as it used to be (...) What is still a problem is what I mentioned earlier that data is being collected either through the census or administrative sources but it is not being used. So there are lots of challenges still to make sure that everything that is collected is effectively being used. 

Q: Are there potential sources of new data?

A: (...) What we see is a lot of collection of administrative data you know on the border, whenever you need to show your passport, whenever you travel. Those administrative data are potential sources that are underutilized. There is a great potential there for better understanding the reason for migration, the duration of migration (...) I think we need to work hard to get that information on the table.

Q: How could computer scientists and software developers help migration experts? 

A: What we certainly need is to put more data online (...) In developing countries where there is limited expertise they could certainly be useful in training people who are responsible for this data. There could be a pool of software engineers who could support country x that has suffered problems in managing the census data maybe by visiting a country for a month or so to help them with the processing of the data (...)

Q: What about data scientists? How could they help enrich the analysis of migration data?

AThere is a very interesting new development already for some years going on which is very promising. Some organizations are putting online what we call microdata. So if you have a very big survey or if 10% of all the population census records are put online and anonymzed. Then you can download all those individual records and anaylze. There is a lot potential there because more and more statistical offices are putting very rich data files online and for the data scientists to use that data and to analyze and to study that for purpose of migration. I think there is a need for that.

Q: Internet-capable smartphones are already outselling feature phones and phone makers are introducing low-cost models in developing countries. What kind of apps would be useful to have for migration data experts and for migrants?

For migrants one thing that is being developed and i think has great potential is to use cellphones to transfer remittances within countries or between countries (...)

Another very important development is special data capture devices for surveys. Rather than bringing a questionaire and filling it out by hand the responses can be introduced into a handheld device so that the data collected can be easily transfered at the end of the day to a central computer and that is cutting out a lot of coding, typing and mistakes and things like that. Data capture hanheld devices can be very useful. There is great potential for improving that.

Q: If you had an opportunity to use the skills and knowledge of computer programmers and data scientists - what would you ask them to work on?

A: To work with government officials and statistical offices in developing countries to provide them with expertise and support. You have Doctors Without Borders and all these groups that are working in poor countries and if there could be a kind of a backup of a group of people who can be contacted if countries have issues or problems with data processing, who can be called upon to develop websites, etc, etc and whether that would be online or physically by visiting those countries I think that would be definitely very important.

Q: How would that improve people's lives? How would that have a positive impact apart from the benefit of having the information available?

The whole issue of global migration has really risen on the political agenda nationally, regionally but also globally. I think is through these efforts that policies of countries can be better based on evidence. That is one thing.

Second thing is life of migrants can be improved if we know for example how the remittances that migrants send back are being spent. If maybe a lot is spent in building a house or something like that then we can make recommendations and we can help those migrants maybe to use those remittances for more productive purposes so that the families in the countries of origin can have better living standards: financial literacy, access to micro credit, etc, etc.

You cannot develop those programs if you do not have that information. If migrant families children or one parent families are left behind  because one person is working in another country and if we do not know the needs of those families in terms of maybe challenges with regard to the children left behind. If you want to help those families you have to have the information.

The same goes for the countries of destination. Migrants do face a lot of challenges, specially the low skilled migrants. They face discrimination  they face abuse, they are underpaid. There is a lot of that going on. If you do not have the information and the surveys then is very difficult to do something about those abuses and discriminatory practices. 

We know there is quite a lot of unemployment these days both among natives and among migrants. We know from a lot of research that actually migrants are not really stealing the jobs of natives although that is a common belief specially when you are unemployed you say 'Why is that migrant working and why am i unemployed?' I think that is a logical question but the evidence shows that the migrants are generally employed in areas where the natives do not want to work. So if we have more of that information available from surveys, evidence that is collected, that may help a lot in improving the lives of migrants in destination countries and for the people to better understand how migrants contribute rather than compete with natives and how important the role of migrants are in the destination countries, economically, socially, etc...