Are “data for good” good data? Research and data quality conceptions on the use of big data to study migration

Anna Pascale (2021)

Master thesis. Lausanne: University of Lausanne

Abstract. Moving from the large debate concerning the role of innovative data sources for social policies and official statistics on the one side, and the ethical concerns involving the use of big data for social research on the other side, this study aims at investigating the evolution of migration research in the big data era. It presents findings from a thematic analysis of transcripts obtained from semi-structured in-depth interviews exploring the experiences and perspectives of seven research and data experts involved in different levels on initiatives that aim to employ innovative data sources and techniques for social good projects unfolding in the field of migration. Interviews had a focus on questions of data quality, regarding both “old” and “new” data sources. Findings from the current study suggest that, in the datafied world, research is invested with an operational role oriented towards the formulation of politically relevant insights for which more timely and granular data are demanded, and current official statistics are consequently considered inadequate. The ethical risks associated with the use of big data in a field as sensitive as the one of migration and the necessary involvement of private companies (that hold the greatest part of such a digital knowledge) not only as data providers but, more importantly, as statistics makers, raises concerns about the risks of big data (mis)use, distribution of responsibilities between the public and private sector, and what role is left to official statistics, traditionally entrusted with providing society with a solid, accessible, and enduring complex of knowledge on its wellness.

Keywords: Official statistics, big data for good, research ethics, research conceptions, data quality, migration, in-depth interviews, economics of convention, solutionism.

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