Digital Self-Determination as a Tool for Migrant Empowerment

Uma Kalkar
Data Stewards Network
7 min readMay 16, 2022


Takeaways from the First Studio on Digital Self Determination and Migration

This blog details the proceedings of the first of two digital self-determination studios. Learn more about the second studio here.

By Uma Kalkar, Marine Ragnet, and Stefaan Verhulst

In 2020, there were an estimated 281 million migrants, accounting for 3.6% of the global population. Migrants move for a variety of reasons: some are forced to flee from unsafe situations caused by conflict or climate change, others voluntarily move in search of new opportunities. People on the move bring along a wealth of new data. This information creates new opportunities for data collection, use, and reuse across the migration process and by a variety of public, private, and humanitarian sectors. Increased access and use of data for migration need to be accompanied by increased agency and the empowerment of the data subjects — a concept called “digital self-determination” (DSD).

The Big Data for Migration Alliance (BD4M) is a multisectoral initiative driven by the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (IOM-GMDAC), the European Commission’s Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography (KCMD), and The GovLab at New York University. Realizing the need for a paradigm change for data in migration policy, the BD4M and International Network on Digital Self-Determination (IDSD) hosted the first studio as part of its Digital Self-Determination Studio Series.

Joined by participants from across sectors and the world, including members of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, UNICEF, the Berkman Klein Center, and the Robert Bosch Foundation, this studio served as a launchpad to gain understanding of what DSD constitutes for migrants. The studio took stock of the existing gaps in DSD for migrants across policy, technology, and process dimensions. It then explored how to achieve DSD for migrants.

Although DSD is a relatively new concept, its roots stem from philosophy, psychology and human rights jurisprudence. Broadly speaking, DSD affirms that a person’s data is an extension of themselves in cyberspace, and we therefore need to consider how to provide a certain level of autonomy and agency to individuals or communities over their digital self. The first studio sought to deconstruct this concept within the context of migration and migrants. Below we list some of the main takeaways from the studio discussions.

Interactive brainstorm around how and where DSD applies to migration, as well as avenues to prototype DSD advancement.

Takeaway #1: DSD is in essence about the power asymmetries between migrants, states, and relevant organizations. Specifically, conversations around DSD centered around “power” and “control” — there is an asymmetry between the migrant and the state or organization they interact with to move within and across borders. These imbalances center around agency (a lack of autonomy over data collection, data consciousness, and data use); choice (in who, how, and where data are used, a lack of transparency over these decisions, and power and control issues faced when seeking to access national or social rights); and participation (who gets to formulate questions and access the data?).

  • Studio participants brought up how structural requirements force migrants to be open about their data; noted the opacity around how data is sourced from migrants; and raised concerns about agency, data literacy, and advocacy across the migrant process.
  • The various hierarchies of power, and how it relates to DSD for migrants, highlighted the discrepancies in power between migrants, the state, private companies, and even NGOs.
  • Information architecture and information asymmetries are some of the central aspects to consider to achieve DSD, suggesting that DSD may relate directly to who is telling the story during a crisis and who has the power to add insights to the narratives being developed. A responsible DSD framework will hinge on the voices of migrants.
  • The right to “data consciousness” was also raised to ensure that vulnerable individuals and groups are aware of when, where, and how data are collected, processed, and stored. Nurturing this awareness helps breed agency around personal data.
Representation of power asymmetries faced by migrants in achieving their DSD.

Takeaway #2: There is a need to understand the dual meaning of DSD. Not only does DSD encompass a migrant’s agency and ability to control the collection and use of their data, it also includes the use of digital tools to achieve self-determination goals. Opportunities to further DSD can come in two ways.

  • Participants recognized that DSD is two-sided. It refers to both the use of digital tools to facilitate self-determination and self-determination on how digital is used throughout the migrant process.
  • Accounting for the dual-sided nature of DSD can help create meaningful policies, technologies, and processes that enhance migrant agency and data rights.

Takeaway #3: There is a need to engage migrants in needs and expectations. Studio participants discussed the importance of engaging migrants in the determination of needs and expectations in order to inform better actions.

  • Migrants generally lack visibility in general interactions, especially digital, minimizing their role in migration and making them passive actors.
  • Because of the heterogeneity of migrant groups, informed responses should be tailored to their various experiences to personalize their data-sharing decisions, giving them an active role in providing insights for a response.

Takeaway #4: A taxonomy of DSD for the various migration-related steps can support creating effective tools to protect migrants along their journey. Migrants are a heterogeneous group with different voices, experiences, and needs from technology and policy during their time in transit and resettlement. It is essential that technologists and policymakers build a taxonomy to understand the nuances of DSD during the various steps of the migration journey to better reach and serve migrants and refugees according to data and technology tools.

  • This taxonomy would consider migrants’ reasons for leaving their country of origin, language, culture, and tech-literacy differences. These vignettes of the many faces of migration need to be created “with, by, and for” migrants to activate the power of data as a tool to advance humanitarian and migration policy, drive migrant-centered initiatives, and provide migrants with decision-making autonomy.
A possible structure for a taxonomy (TBD at the next Studio).

Takeaway #5: DSD can be achieved through policy, technology, and process innovations.

Several ideas to empower migrants through technology.

  • One potential use-case that emerged was a social network connecting former and current migrants to foster community-led support while navigating migration.
  • Another idea centered on technology tools to streamline the administrative burden and overwhelm faced by migrants as they resettle in a new country.
  • As well, the creation of a ‘right to be forgotten’ portal was raised as a potential solution to involuntary and/or unnecessary data collection.

Existing and possible prototypes for future policies.

  • One suggestion was around regulating the architecture of data processing and data collection to avoid function/scope creep into other areas.
  • Others raised the idea of prototyping a policy around plain language communication on data collection and (re)use permissions for migrants.

Process measures to support technology and policy development.

  • Participants discussed the need to create a generalizable charter that is nuanced by the types of actors involved in the migration process, the types of data collected, and the types of data use.
  • Processes are best understood as the sum of their different parts in order to see where DSD can be added in an appropriate manner so as not to overburden migrants but increase global actor responsibility to uphold DSD.

Takeaway #6: DSD opportunities need to be determined across the data life cycle.

  • Discussions centered around ways to provide migrants with agency over their data beyond receiving consent over the collection of data. This idea aligns with a core component of DSD — that one’s data is an extension of oneself in cyberspace.
  • Mapping the migrant data lifecycle could help identify entry points where data need to be collected to determine the minimum data necessary for institutional actors to receive from migrants, along with policy or action development.
Draft matrix to flesh out where, when, which, how, and why data are sourced from migrants.

Next steps

The next Studio will look for practical ways to transform theory into practice. Armed with these takeaways, the second session will focus on a three of the following six prototypes:

  1. A taxonomy of DSD and the migration spaces;
  2. A DSD charter created with migrants to help explain how to enforce digital self-determination principles;
  3. The implementation of trustworthy data spaces for (cross border) migration;
  4. A data assembly for migrant communities to advance digital literacy and data and human rights;
  5. A digital tool to help streamline administrative overwhelm during migration; and
  6. A “right to be forgotten” portal for migrants.


Those interested in collaborating are encouraged to send an email to Stefaan Verhulst at To learn more about the Big Data 4 Migration Alliance, visit For more information on the International Digital Self-Determination Network, visit

About the organizers

The Big Data 4 Migration Alliance (BD4M) is the first-ever dedicated network of actors looking to examine the potential and pitfalls at the intersection between big data and migration. This multisectoral initiative is driven by the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (IOM GMDAC), the European Commission’s Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography (KCMD), and The GovLab at New York University.

The International Network on Digital Self-Determination (IDSD) is a research hub looking for ways to turn DSD concepts into practical frameworks and real-world use-cases that aid the development and protection of these rights.



Uma Kalkar
Data Stewards Network