The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2019 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
The risk that tech tools such as predictive modelling might be used to spread fear, or further restrict migration flows, should not deter us from developing them, insists Rana Novack, because their potential to make things better is too great to ignore and, in the case of artificial intelligence, already proven.
Being Syrian yourself, and with many relatives and friends who fled the Syrian war, you have a personal drive to see predictive analysis of migration and refugee crises work. Is this still your main drive or inspiration?
Without a doubt. At the heart of all of this for me has been understanding how far-reaching the effects of war can be and also seeing through the eyes of my relatives what that process looks like. It doesn’t mean very much when we hear that millions of people have been displaced, but when you talk to one person and understand their singular journey, and you understand each step that they have to go through to even learn whether or not they might be eligible to escape a conflict, I really learnt a lot about what I consider to be the deficiencies in the process and [that] there’s a way that we can do things better. I know there is. And so that absolutely has been my main inspiration and I don’t think I would have been so persistent without it.
How would you respond to those who are sceptical about predictive modelling because of how it may be used by the right-wing to increase the fear of “invasions”, or used by governments to tighten their border controls and create policies to prevent access?
We need to make sure that the tools are available for the people who want to do the right thing. I think with any tool, any technology, there’s the opportunity for someone to use it with malintent, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t create these tools so that we can be a force for good in the world. Ultimately, it’s up to us to choose how we want to use these tools.
Can you describe the advances being made in using big data machine learning and predicting future population movements or refugee crises? How close are we to a workable model?
We already have a workable model. What we have been focused on is leveraging AI, machine learning, predictive modelling, and data analytics to better understand bilateral mixed migration flows and the dynamics of migration, and looking at how we can better explain migratory flows for two reasons. Firstly, and this has always been with the refugee or the migrant at the heart of the solution, how can we make sure we’re giving them better options? And then secondly, how do we enable humanitarian assistance so that the people supporting refugees and migrants can do their jobs easier? And we’ve been looking at all sorts of data sources and really digging into some of the drivers of migration. We have developed a multi-scale model that has been trained on these indicators and historic information, and we are able to generate forecasts and conduct what-if scenario analyses, so we can envision what a migration or refugee crisis might look like or what the consequences on the flow or migrants will look like if, for example, a certain policy is introduced or if a border is closed.
What do you think the private sector can bring to predictive modelling around these movements that is missing from the efforts of the UN, NGOs, academics and governments?
In the private sector, we don’t have the same types of mandates. We have the latitude to experiment, to innovate, and the capacity for creativity. It is boundless. The private sector thrives on new ideas, and so if we can bring some of that spirit into the policy and development world, all boats rise with that tide.
During the Syrian refugee crisis, there was not only an absence of technological analysis but an absence of political will to respond. Isn’t that the key issue irrespective of predictive capacity?
That is something that I personally have struggled with in trying to understand the seeming lack of empathy and compassion, and the paralysis of political will. And you’re absolutely right, and I have my feelings about that, and about politically, what I think we can and should do differently – I’ve done advocacy in that respect. I feel that the technology industry isn’t constrained by those same parameters. If we can present data and information that’s evidence-based to the policy makers, it makes it a lot more difficult to ignore.
How would you characterize the global North’s low appetite to settle and absorb refugees? And do you think it will change in the future?
I feel discouraged and I feel disheartened. I also feel like it is history repeating itself. It’s been especially difficult, to be honest because as you know, I have a very personal connection and when I see people that I care about portrayed as villains or invaders in some way, it’s just not accurate. It’s such a mischaracterization and I think that it’s a general lack of understanding and basic education about the processes that refugees have to go through, even to be eligible for resettlement, not to mention facing issues of negative perception and stigma along the way.
The impact of AI in the future looks massive. Do you think there’s a risk it will exacerbate local inequality and potential for conflict, causing more refugees or migrants? Or will it be a force for good?
I think maybe it has the potential to do both, but I will say that so far, I’ve seen AI helping more than harming the plight of refugees and migrants. We’re still learning about the limits of AI and the future is still to be determined, but as of right now, I’m seeing three categories where AI has the greatest impact: people, the problem itself, and policy. Concerning people – refugees and humanitarian aid workers – we’re already seeing that the lives and conditions of refugees are being improved using AI, which is quite remarkable. The most easily accessible example of this, of course, is smartphones, how refugees and migrants have been able to stay connected both with the world and with networks, things like maps, navigation, translation, healthcare, mental health, humanitarian assistance.
Then moving to the problem itself, the actual issue of mass migration, that raises questions about how we leverage AI to manage this better now while concurrently preparing to respond better in the future. Obviously, I’m an evangelist for better forecasting, but let’s imagine for a minute – we’re not quite there yet but let’s imagine – if we could predict a refugee crisis, which we’re on our way to doing. But what does that mean and what are some of the implications that that would have on the types of support that refugees receive? I’m thinking of empowerment, enabling self-reliance. By the way, there’s an AI-powered software that’s being tested right now to support the resettlement process based on refugees’ skill sets and matching those with the economic needs of the communities in which they’re resettled.
Thirdly, policy. Policy is such an important part and there are so many ways that AI can offer better insight into policy. For example, AI can support unbiased practices throughout the immigration process. You may have heard of the first robot citizen, the robot that’s a citizen in Saudi Arabia?1 I find that so interesting that we can have a robot with citizenship while millions of people are considered stateless. There are some really conflicting things that are going on that make me pause and think about what this all means, both in terms of technology but also technology’s influence on the dynamics and conceptions of citizenship and nationality.
I feel very encouraged about what I’m seeing so far, but AI is a developing field, so we will see what the future holds – and the future we create with this new technology.
Is there a risk that as AI advances more in some countries than others, refugees may be left behind from a skills point of view?
You’re asking specifically about the skills gap, or the skills gap that might be created because of the advances in technology and how refugees will fare in that new work environment? I think that it’s an opportunity for people to re-skill and to learn AI and learn about these new technologies and to even develop further technologies. Many refugees are very technically fluent. That means that with the right training there is great opportunity for refugees to make meaningful contributions in this new workforce.
How important do you think categorical distinctions are between those on the move?
I do think that a distinction is important. And the reason is that we have a legal and moral responsibility to support refugees. When someone is fleeing war and persecution, it’s unconscionable to me that they might be turned away. According to international law, we have an obligation to help refugees, period. Now, I also believe that respecting borders, respecting the laws of migration, and supporting refugees are not mutually exclusive. I often find that they are pitted against one another, but we can respect security and immigration laws while upholding our obligation and responsibility to support refugees.
Given the behaviour of some countries, are the aspirations of the global compacts unrealistically optimistic?
Is it more important to be realistic or idealistic? I do think they’re optimistic, and I also believe that it’s incredibly important to be idealistic. We know that in practice and in reality it doesn’t always work out. Something that’s struck me about the compacts is that the word “burden” is used repeatedly, 26 times. Which plays into the false narrative and perception that refugees are something negative. Refugees are not a problem to be solved, and supporting them is not a burden: it’s a legal obligation and moral responsibility.
The compacts are certainly a wonderful step forward in terms of collaboration and encouraging international cooperation. It remains to be seen how this is going to play out in practice. The reality is that it’s shocking to think of proportionately how few refugees globally are resettled. But we all must stay vigilant and make sure that we hold ourselves, and each other, accountable.
Thinking of the future, are you a pessimist or an optimist, dystopian or utopian?
It depends on the day! In all honesty, I go back and forth. I have days where I’m incredibly pessimistic and I get stuck feeling discouraged, just watching what’s happening in the world and how some of the world’s most vulnerable populations have been targeted. And I have thought a lot about empathy, and I’ve wondered where is the compassion and why should it matter if they’re either five miles away or 5,000 miles away? And then I have other times where I’m incredibly encouraged and I’m a witness to the overwhelming love and support that refugees and migrants are receiving; and I’m inspired by the creativity, resourcefulness, and above all, the strength and resilience of people. And I think to myself, if they can get through this, anything is possible.