Although it can be difficult to imagine for the millions of us who live in safety and comfort, 24 people are forced to leave their homes every minute and become refugees. These are people faced with violence, political unrest, or persecution, and it’s simply not safe for them to stay in their home country. Currently, the ongoing conflict in Syria is driving millions of people from their homes and families, but it’s not the only country people are fleeing.

We mostly think of big data as a tool for businesses and smart city development, but in reality, it can serve many different purposes—including helping the most vulnerable people in the world find their footing and get help. But how would this work, and is anyone taking steps to leverage this powerful tool for refugees’ benefit?

 

Creating an Informed Dialogue

There is a lot of fear surrounding refugees. Citizens of countries refugees try to enter often object to allowing them to create a new life in their area. Much of this fear is based on misinformation or plain ignorance. Although not everyone will change their mind about refugees thanks to factual information, data is a good place to start.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Bank Group have recently teamed up to encourage a more informed dialogue. Their plan is to create a center known as The Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement where anonymous data will be collected on refugees and distributed to policymakers and anyone else who can use the information to make the lives of refugees better.

In addition to collecting data on the demographics, skills, and other information about the people seeking shelter, the center’s goal will be to find innovative and helpful uses for the data, and prompt policymakers to create solutions that work for everyone. The center will likely be located in Europe and will hopefully open in 2019.

Where are Refugees Going?

Without analytics, it can be difficult to predict where refugees will decide to seek safety. Although countries near their own can expect an initial influx, conflict can occur at any time, and refugees may start seeking other options if the nearest countries are unwilling to accept them. Predictive analytics could hold the key to knowing where refugees will head next.

“Sophisticated analytics could help experts confidently chart where refugees are likely to head next,” said Anirudh V. S. Ruhil, professor at Ohio University’s Online Master of Public Administration program, in an article for The Conversation.

Ruhil added that, “Policymakers, spotting signs of future influx, might reroute refugees to different countries… This real-time data could also help organizations quickly and accurately shunt money and goods to the locales that need them the most.”

This could be especially helpful to countries like Bangladesh, which has seen the influx of refugees from Myanmar facing religious persecution. While the government and citizens have responded with compassion and have handled the situation well, rerouting some of the refugees could help reduce the environmental and financial impact on host countries. About 1 in 4 people in Bangladesh live in poverty.

 

Solving the Employment Problem

Just getting refugees out of unsafe situations is the first step, but it can’t be the last. Many refugees will not be able to return to their homes for some time, if ever. There’s also the issue of acculturation stress, which is a term for the negative effects of adapting to a new culture. Acculturation stress can cause depression, loneliness, and other psychological issues.

Being welcomed into the culture and finding employment can help speed up the acculturation process. Refugees can’t live in camps forever, and it’s key for their psychological health and well-being to find placement as quickly as possible. Although studies on what makes placement successful or unsuccessful are relatively new, the results are promising: data indicates that algorithm-assisted placement using big data could increase the odds of refugees finding a job by 40-60%!

 

Allocating the Necessary Resources

Big data gives us a powerful tool in helping people who are forced to leave their homes, but we need to start using it as soon as possible. The Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement is a good place to start, but the many refugees in crisis need help immediately. Data collection, smart policy, and a healthy dose of compassion need to come together in order to help end the refugee crisis and help the millions of displaced people feel safe and comfortable once again.

Ryan Ayers

contributor