William Allen, Fellow by Examination, University of Oxford: “Big data and migration:
“When Messages Matter: How Different Types of Supporting Evidence Impact Immigration Attitudes and Policy Preferences”


By examining what researchers and practitioners know about media and migration—as well as highlighting cutting-edge studies—Dr William Allen offered a wide-angled and international view of this timely issue. Specifically, he addressed several key aspects of how media and migration are related: how media portray migrants and migration; how this coverage relates to the wider world, including what people think; and what factors may contribute to these patterns.

Meanwhile, he explained, that media also relate to policymakers and legislative decisions by setting their agendas. He referred to research that shows that this depends on the issue at hand, the type of media, and the extent to which a party ‘owns’ the topic and sees more coverage as politically advantageous. Moreover, these effects may differ at other levels of government, such as the city level.

Media also can influence migrants in several ways. On the one hand, media serves as a source of information about current affairs that may—either directly or indirectly—impact on individuals’ decisions to move. Even after moving, migrants often use media to both learn about their new location and keep in touch with their national or ethnic identities. On the other hand, media act in more diffuse, subtle ways by shaping migrants’ aspirations, expectations, and perceptions of belonging. Images about what a ‘good life’ looks like, for example, can influence people to seek out different opportunities abroad.

Dr Allen also insisted on how important is data collection and on the clear relationship it has to migration and mobility in particular. This relationship has three dimensions: data collection, data categorisation, and data visualisation. The collection of data presents significant practical difficulties and questions which cannot be answered in an algorithmic and ‘neutral’ way. For example, how do we know that the data reflect what we think they reflect, in other words, how do we know that we actually know something? 

Using an example to elaborate on his position, Dr Allen cited the use of mobile phones by refugees when moving from their own country to another. Apart from data collection, migrants are also interested in proper data visualisation. Data visualisation has always aimed to enable the understanding of the data and is of great importance to science in the long term.

In this respect, data politics involves the participation of many people and groups who have different interests, motives and agendas. A scientist’s visualisation of the data he/she produces may be quite different from that of visualisation by professionals, institutions, journalists etc. The result of visualisation is not unambiguous, as it depends on who is involved in the process and what aspects of data, they wish to highlight to make their argument convincing.

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