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by Valerie Wollinger

‘Why should we think about this topic?

Most of us think:

’I only want to survive’

For the graduation challenge, Dr. Dennis Nguyen asked me and my team members to convey his research findings on data literacy to lay people. Each of us was able to target a specific audience and thereby design unique solutions for different personas. I chose to build my own framework along the spectrum of algorithmic discrimination, a term to describe how digital infrastructures amplify oppressions of marginalized populations such as people of color (Noble, 2018) or displaced people (Fors-Owczynik, 2016). From there I dissected uneven, coded landscapes to better understand how refugees in Utrecht (and beyond) experience the digital arena.

I came up with different prototypes to convey data literacy through the means of 1. ICT courses and 2. modular learning material via Instagram. These two channels do not only focus on the individual needs of refugees but do advise teachers on how to digitally comprehend societal and emotional layers among newcomers. Both solutions have been confirmed to be useful tools for learning about data literacy. 

The outcomes are responses to recent discourses about data literacy that are often rooted in a Euro-centric mindset which can result in a non-intersectional analysis of digital problems. 

Through my qualitative analysis, I was able to better distinguish the actual digital needs of newcomers. 

Digital Infrastructure

Digitalization touches every aspect of society, also the datafied journey of refugees, often coined as the ‘digital passage’ (Marie Gillespie, 2018).

Along this digital passage, not only official bodies of data collection but also commercial big-tech companies are meant to accompany refugees along their journeys. My aim was not to question official procedures of data collection but rather to teach refugees how data collection can be used in embedded systems, like social networks.

I found out that most refugees use social media to connect with their families and peers. That is why one of the main educational components was to outline how data-driven technologies work so that refugees can learn to negotiate their own settings in order to practice their digital self-determination. 

This aim is closely connected to the second pillar of ‘Digital Security’. For refugees, information management and data security are sometimes a means of survival. I found out that not every refugee is data literate enough to know which information revealed is accessible for the public. That is why some would bring themselves into informational danger by publishing sensitive data without adjusting their privacy settings. 

Knowing this helped me to set up learning components in which I supported refugees to make their own decisions on their own devices in their own accounts and digital landscapes. That to me was important as it was a tangible solution. Still, another critical issues became more visible over time. 

Is data literacy a privilege?

I found out that data literacy– through the eyes of a refugee – is seen as something that one who mainly strives to survive is not interested in.

Other than that, refugees do need to have a certain educational background to comprehend data literacy. All of my interviewees were able to talk in English and understood the context of the topic, which was in part possible due to their academic backgrounds. 

They confirmed that most of their peers could not talk English and were mostly neither educated nor interested in learning about new topics, such as data literacy.  Apart from that, the majority of refugees had experienced a traumatic journey which makes some of them incapable of receiving complex information upon arrival due to mental incapability.  

Final Advice

Interviewees and desk research have shown that especially COVID-19 has brought to the fore how illiterate refugees are suffering from exclusion and cannot fully participate in society due to their lack of digital skills. 

This poses a need for refugees to learn not only how to interact with ICT but moreover to understand the architecture of digital infrastructures. This is not only due to their own safety but starts with existential needs such as finding a job in an almost fully digitized job market. Still, for the majority of refugees, data literacy is not relevant in the first place, which poses a challenge on how to convey a knowledge that is not asked for or needed, yet. ICT teachers are also sometimes not data literate themselves and work on a voluntary basis, which indicates a need of more digital education for teachers. 

How might we conceptualize data literacy to address the needs of displaced people?

How might we create public awareness for the digital translation of refugees’ journeys?

How might we convey data literacy to ICT-teachers?

How might we open more doors to sustainable interventions of digital inclusion for uninformed refugees from mixed migration backgrounds in Utrecht and beyond?

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