As we approach a year since the global outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter that followed the death of George Floyd in the United States, it bears remembering the form that racism takes in the modern world. It is a racism that is not only a matter of individual prejudice, but of systems of power designed—intentionally or otherwise—to exploit, suppress and dehumanize.
It is a racism that is not an abstract, but a tangible, material reality for large parts of humanity. And it is a racism that permeates human creation, from borders to cities to algorithms.
To many, the advent of sophisticated data science methods like artificial intelligence (AI) seems to hold the promise of removing the harmful racial biases that humans bring to decision-making and analysis. If race is a social construct, shouldn’t a computer be able to see past prejudice and make fair decisions?
The assumption that technology will naturally reduce discrimination and identify inequalities that humans would otherwise miss is a common one, but it poses dangerous consequences for those working with data science tools.
Without conscious intervention, it should be assumed that bias—racial or otherwise—has been introduced in the development process by humans subject to their own social and individual constructs. As such, combatting racial discrimination in emerging humanitarian technologies requires planning, proactive identification and active monitoring.
For IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), data science tools used responsibly hold the promise of improving aid delivery. These tools are useful in reducing the burden of repetitive, labour-intensive decisions with low levels of risk. If well planned to reduce human biases, advanced data science can expand the capacity of humanitarian organizations in ways that align with or even heighten the principles of neutrality and universality.
Some of these tools are already established in the humanitarian sector. AI systems can be used to predict drought and food insecurity, for example, or reunite separated families using facial recognition tools. These technologies can also help combat discrimination by identifying unequal outcomes that human analysts cannot see.
Yet the data science methods that form the foundation of technological humanitarian advances may still be limited in the way they input bias into projects. In recent years, AI systems have been developed in unregulated contexts and used in experimental cases. The possibilities of technological solutions are explored and sometimes even exploited in advance of regulatory legal frameworks, impacting decisions as serious as the determination of refugee status in national immigration systems.
These issues are disquieting not only for national or local authorities, but for also for humanitarians who do not consider in advance the possibly biased effects—individual and social—of the profound decisions they make. The vulnerability of people experiencing humanitarian crisis leaves them uniquely unable to evaluate and appeal decisions that affect them.
AI tools, for example, are often trained on data that is non-representative—both of use-case populations and of humanitarian contexts—leading to unexpected limitations. For example, mis-identification of non-white faces has been reported in many AI facial recognition software. Perhaps more fundamentally, the information that any data science tool uses in its development reflects conditions in a world full of prejudice and the real material inequalities that prejudice has created. If not used carefully, data science can reinforce biases and, what’s worse, wrongfully suggest that biases are natural.
AI poses some of the most pressing challenges in identifying and eliminating bias. Where traditional algorithms reflect human-created rules, AI relies on the ability of computers to recognize patterns and create their own expansive and ever-changing sets of rules. After studying a training data set, an AI may find millions of factors that minutely improve its analytical power.
As a result, AI systems may suffer from the so-called “black-box” problem, wherein the inputs and processes of the system are opaque to human observers. A person affected by the output of such a system may be entirely unable to appeal because it is impossible—even to the developer—to identify the process that led to it. So, while the effect of racialized action might be the same, it becomes far more difficult to identify the bias.
Simply eliminating data on race from data sets is no guarantee that the outcome of data processing won’t be biased, and, in some cases, might make identification of bias more difficult. An AI will in most cases be able to reach similar conclusions using proxies for race, such as address, religion or other culturally determined identifying factors. As such, eliminating data on race can simply obscure bias without reducing it at all, making it more likely to pass undetected.
Using race data is bad and not using race data is bad—the paradox explains why no simple technical guidance can suffice to eliminate racial discrimination from technology. Race and other discriminatory factors should not be relevant in society, but racism and its cumulative consequences are real. Addressing racism through unbiased technological improvement is not possible without actively considering and working to redress the reality of racism more broadly.
Fortunately, as data science tools are developed and adopted by humanitarian actors, useful protection frameworks have begun to emerge, including Harvard’s Signal Code, the IASC Operational Guidance on Data Responsibility in Humanitarian Action, and UNDP and Global Pulse’s Guide to Data Innovation for Development.
For bold, new data science projects to work, they must be guided by a robust process for assessing and minimizing biases. Because bias can be introduced into data science projects in innumerable ways, the Humanitarian Data Science and Ethics Group (DSEG) — of which DTM is a coordinator — has concluded that a static guidance cannot sufficiently address all forms of bias.
Rather, a dynamic, interactive process for assessing all the ways that bias could be introduced allows project designers at DTM and throughout the humanitarian sector to ensure that they have considered and made their best conscious efforts to eliminate bias.
This process is codified in DSEG’s Framework for the Ethical Use of Advanced Data Science in the Humanitarian Sector and the resulting Decision Tree, which challenge project designers to consider whether they have identified potentially discriminatory issues, such as historical bias in data collection, lack of representation in training data, and the diversity of the project’s team. Both formalize the process—rather than the outcome—of bias checks, so the system is appropriate for new and emerging tools. They rely on an entire project team’s knowledge of their project, the context in which it will be conducted, and the technology it will use to ensure that the guidance is always relevant.
Applying these frameworks to the development of data science projects can help practitioners decide on an appropriate accountability framework, test their model for bias, or even decide that, in certain cases, a process cannot be safely automated.
Racial discrimination and bias do not result from data science; but insofar as data science tools reflect the socio-economic and political realities in which they were created, they can formalize, obscure and deepen discrimination. So, it is the responsibility of all humanitarian data science users to ensure that they have proactively identified and mitigated all biases that may impact their work.
It is a universal responsibility—of data scientists, decision makers and everyone else—to eliminate the hate and exploitation that creates conditions of bias, inequality and discrimination to begin with.
This article was written by Jack Bahn, a consultant with DTM London. The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of IOM.
Another boat tragedy off North Africa’s Atlantic Coast stark reminder of perilous sea journeys
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, say the deaths of 47 people who were onboard a boat heading to the Canary Islands from North Africa’s Atlantic coast highlight the urgent need for more support to prevent further tragedies at sea.
The boat left on 3 August carrying 54 people, including three children. After two days at sea, engine failure left passengers stranded without food or water for nearly a fortnight. When located by the Mauritanian coast guard on 16 August, only seven people were alive on board.
Survivors were taken to Mauritania’s northern city of Nouadhibou for medical treatment. Four people in critical condition were transferred to hospital. UNHCR is working to provide assistance and to determine whether any survivors have international protection needs.
The latest tragedy comes just 10 days after another 40 people lost their lives along the same route. It adds to the spiraling number of deaths, as more vessels depart for the Canary Islands. As of January this year, more than 350 people have died, while over 8,000 refugees and migrants have reached Spain using this sea route.
Meanwhile, since October 2020, more than 1,200 people have been rescued off the Mauritanian coast and received medical assistance as part of a first aid programme set up by IOM.
IOM and UNHCR are appealing for more support, to be able to continue their lifesaving interventions, including through screening, medical and psychosocial aid.
“Our top priority is to provide safe and viable alternatives to the dangerous journeys undertaken by refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, as per the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees,” said Maria Stavropoulou, UNHCR’s Representative in Mauritania. “UNHCR is working to increase the identification of those with international protection needs travelling along these routes and provide assistance in the countries that host them.”
IOM’s Chief of Mission in Mauritania, Boubacar Seybou, said the organization was concerned that many rescued at sea end up in administrative detention.
“In accordance with the recommendations included in the Global Compact for Migration, alternatives must also be available to survivors, who have already suffered heavy medical and psychosocial trauma,” Seybou said. “We are working closely with authorities “to accelerate the implementation of new assistance and protection measures, and to strengthen the fight against traffickers and smuggler networks.”
IOM and UNHCR are urging the international community to support efforts to identify and assist those with international protection and other specific needs, to create safe and legal pathways, establish alternatives to detention, and strengthen search and rescue capacity off the coast of Mauritania.
Response capacities stretched with hasty return of 40,000 Ethiopian migrants
Ethiopia – The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is urgently appealing for funds to respond to the needs of 40,000 Ethiopian migrants returning from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Over 30,000 have arrived in Ethiopia over the last two weeks, at the rate of over 2,600 people a day. More than 20,400 (68 per cent) are from parts of Tigray and Amhara regions which are in the midst of conflict in Northern Ethiopia that has displaced nearly two million people.
The returns of Ethiopian migrants follow a bilateral agreement between the governments of Ethiopia and KSA.
According to IOM, USD 740,000 is needed to provide assistance for every 10,000 migrants returning. This is for essentials such as medical treatment, supplies for babies and infants such as diapers, clothing, help with finding and tracing family members, and reunifying them or providing alternative care arrangements as appropriate, as well as to respond to protection concerns.
“This sudden upsurge in returns poses a major challenge to our ability to assist the returnees – many of whom require medical and psychosocial assistance, support reuniting with their families, and livelihood options that would help to diminish the appeal of irregular re-migration to KSA and other countries of destination,” says Maureen Achieng, IOM Chief of Mission in Ethiopia.
“Our response is seriously underfunded and barely reaching the needs of returnees in the provision of essential basic and specialized assistance, including for unaccompanied migrant children, pregnant and lactating mothers, and victims of trafficking.”
Many of the migrants will require help to return and reintegrate back into their communities. Reintegration assistance is therefore vital to supporting the returnees psychologically, and to find work and stability, to help them avoid irregular migration, and exploitation by trafficking and smuggling rings.
The returning migrants are among the target population included in the Regional Migrant Response Plan 2021-2024 (MRP) for the Horn of Africa and Yemen, a USD 99 million appeal launched by IOM and 39 partners in March 2021 to address the protection needs, risks and vulnerabilities of migrants along this route. The MRP is underfunded and urgently requires additional resources to carry out its response, including for this target population.
While recognizing the sovereign right of States to determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction, in conformity with international law, IOM, as part of the United Nations Network on Migration, reaffirms its commitment to keeping everyone safe. It means that all Member States need to ensure that collective expulsions of migrants and asylum-seekers must be halted; that protection needs, including international protection, must be individually assessed; and that the rule of law and due process must be observed. It also means prioritizing protection, including every child’s best interest, under the obligations in international law.
IOM provides over 1,300 migrants with emergency shelter and assistance on the Canary Islands
Madrid – As more migrants arrive in the Canary Islands, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has provided shelter, protection services, medical, legal and other types of assistance to 1,361 migrants on Tenerife.
The arrival of more than 23,000 people in the Canary Islands by sea in 2020, particularly in the last three months of the year, strained the reception capacity and COVID-19 has further complicated the response. In November 2020, the Government of Spain announced “Plan Canarias” to renovate and expand the archipelago’s reception facilities to accommodate and assist 7,000 migrants.
Since 26 February this year, IOM has been operating at the Las Canteras Emergency Reception Facility (ERF) on Tenerife to support the Spanish government in managing the site. The EU-funded facility is an open centre which can accommodate as many as 1,100 people.
“Our priority is to support Spain with site management to provide safe and dignified living conditions and tailored services for migrants who have arrived via extremely treacherous journeys to the Canary Islands,” said Maria Jesús Herrera, Head of IOM’s Office in Spain.
Today, some 300 migrants are staying at the facility from Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Sudan, The Gambia, Mauritania and Côte d’Ivoire.
At Las Canteras, IOM provides meals, core relief items, water and sanitation, maintenance, and Multipurpose Cash Assistance. The Organization also offers protection assistance, which includes vulnerability assessments, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS), primary health care, legal information and counselling for family reunification or international protection, and assistance with transfers of eligible vulnerable migrants to the mainland.
IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) is also available to migrants who wish to return to their country of origin.
Marouane, a 27-year-old from Morocco, had arrived at the facility on 6 March. One year ago, he risked a harrowing sea journey towards the islands.
“For three days, you hang out with death, you see it. But if you don’t die, then you get there,” he told IOM in May.
To date, IOM has provided legal counselling to more than 780 people seeking asylum, in cooperation with UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. IOM also ensured – through close collaboration with the Spanish authorities – the referral and transfer of some 682 migrants to other specialized centres on the islands and the mainland.
The Organization also works closely with the municipality of La Laguna to engage with neighbourhood associations, the Tenerife council, civil society, citizens and local actors in the interest of transparency, mutual exchange, and social cohesion.
“We consider the people hosted in Las Canteras centre as citizens of La Laguna municipality. We therefore try to collaborate as much as possible so that they also benefit from the activities organized by the City Council,” said José Luis Hernandez, Environment Councillor from the La Laguna City Hall.
Arrivals to the Canary Islands on the Western Africa-Atlantic Route this year have reached 7,309 – more than double the number of arrivals at the same time last year. Some 23,848 migrants have reached Spain irregularly via all land and sea routes so far this year.
The project at Las Canteras,“Supporting the Spanish Authorities in managing an Emergency Reception Facility on the Canary Islands”, is funded by the EU (European Commission, DG Home). The overall management of the ERF is under the coordination of the Site Manager of the Spanish Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration.
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