Ep. #44: Digitising Migrants: Annalisa Pelizza on the European immigration crisis in an age of Big Data

“Migration issues in Europe are a hot topic right now – it’s not news that they have been used in the last 50 years as a way to steer public opinion into right wing positions… They are mobilised as elements in a narration of invasion, losing cultural specificities – not only individuals are mobilised, but there are also infrastructures that create people as migrants – not having access to proper work, or being put into certain infrastructures from which it’s virtually impossible to get out, creates people as migrants, as outsiders to society.”

This is the 7th episode in our Science and Technology interview series. This time, Jodie is interviewing Annalisa Pelizza, Professor in Technology Studies of Communication at the University of Bologna in Italy, Visiting Professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and lead investigator on the project “Processing Citizenship: Digital registration of migrants as co-production of citizens, territory and Europe”. They talk about the way that digital infrastructures, such as the databases used to collect information from migrants when they first arrive on European soil, actually help to shape these people into migrants, basically constructing them as a different category of person than perhaps they were before they arrived.

The project uses multi-sited and multi-scale ethnographic methods. A team of 4 persons including Professor Pelizza conducted research in Greece in 2018 at 4 Hotspots (registration centers), then in Germany, and are now going to work in Italy and at the EU Commission. They are the first researchers to have such access after the Turkish-European agreement.

Applicants’s fingerprints are algorithmically coded, both to protect applicants’ privacy, and to make them readable to computers.


About Migrants and Asylum Seekers

“Once you are put into a database where the fact of having given your fingerprints to ask asylum is integrated across different databases with other types of social functions, that will also put you in a position to be a migrant, to be an outsider of society.”

“What was striking for me from this experience of observing [migrants getting processed and fingerprinted], was that most people leaving, after having their fingerprints recorded, they were saying “thanks”… for them it was kind of a – it was fascinating – it was kind of a service they were given, and they were very curious – there was an innate curiosity about the relationship between their bodies and the machine.” 

“What I know from some NGOs is that people arriving in Southern Italy, sometimes they don’t even know where they are. Because if they were stuck in Libya [for example], there’s a desert on the Southern side, kidnapping groups on the Western side and other militia threats on the Eastern side. So the only way for them to go is by the sea. And sometimes they get rescued by ships and they don’t even know where they are brought. So this mythology of the “pull factor”, saying that migrants are increasing their efforts to reach Europe because they know that there is a kind of incentive, or there’s a welcoming attitude for them in Europe, it doesn’t hold when they don’t even know where they are arriving.”

Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne (P31) rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton. Image source: Irish Defence Forces. Shared under CC BY 2.0

Thinking about how migrants come to see Europe as having a certain set of values

“It’s not so strange if you think about the impact of colonialism and the discourses of post colonialism in non-Euopean countries. Europe has always, or after WW2 at least, has prompted these ideas of democracy, of inclusivity, which are absolutely to defend. And at the same time it has also been a colonial power in the past, so these values have formed –  with the power of former colonial authorities – they are not formed in a vacuum… they are recognised as [European] values because of that colonial heritage.” 

On Data and Infrastructures

“The point of this research is looking at long term consequences of these data infrastructures. So as an infrastructure they are one thing today, but they have longer term implications. My hypothesis is that these longer term implications are constituting new understandings of what I call the order of governance, which is made by state and translational institutions like the European commission, and by private actors like contractors. So these physical infrastructures are redesigning – de facto redesigning, in an invisible way – what we think is the form of the State. ” 

“Fingerprints are collected as images, but there was a requirement imposed by the European parliament to have them codified…there are algorithms translating them into numbers. That’s to preserve privacy…It has to do with the fact that many people can read an image, but not everyone can read an algorithmically-coded string of numbers which are the translated fingerprint.”

On working in interdisciplinary teams

To achieve the project goals is challenging but it’s useful… you need a good level of detail – this is a very STS thing, that you have to go into the minutiae of infrastructures to understand how these small changes trigger much broader transformations. So competencies are different but at the same time you look at the same phenomena from different perspectives. 

On being an ethnographic film maker

“The idea was to involve dwellers in representations of their living environment…I learned to be, to become invisible, in  leading my “neighbours”, to use the technologies to represent themselves. Or if they ask us to shoot [photograph/film] them we could do that, but it was more of an interactive relationship, rather than me, there, doing my work and then broadcasting it.” 

Key Terms in this Episode

Discursive apparatus: a term drawn both from Foucault, who “uses this term to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body” (from https://michel-foucault.com/key-concepts/) and from STS scholar Karen Barad, who says that “Apparatuses are ‘material-discursive’ in that they produce determinate meanings and material beings while simultaneously excluding the production of others.” (Prophet, 2016, p. 485

Professor Pelizza uses it to describe how migrants are used as strategic tools to steer public opinion, which then influences how infrastructures are designed, which in turn influences how migrants are created and categorised, allowing them to become even more useful strategic tools for steering public opinion. 

Semantic interoperability: using the same or comparable categories with compatible values across different databases so that databases can communicate with each other. (see Wikipedia definition here)

STS: “Science and Technology Studies, or Science, Technology and Society studies (both abbreviated STS) is the study of how society, politics, and culture affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society, politics and culture.” (from Wikipedia)

Digital infrastructure: “foundational services that are necessary to the information technology capabilities of a nation, region, city or organisation”. Examples include network infrastructure like wifi networks, fixed broadband, mobile telecommunications, communications satellite, data centres, or cloud computing platforms. (from https://simplicable.com/new/digital-infrastructure)

Geometric translation: translation is one of the core concepts in Science and Technology Studies. It relates to the idea that the work of both scientific exploration and technological innovation is to translate things – ideas, physical matter, forces, actions – from one form to another. For example, for a biologists to gather data about soil samples, they might compare soil colour with pre-made colour charts to categorise the soil in their notes – thus the soil becomes translated from a physical substance to a series of pen strokes on a piece of paper. Geometric translation, therefore, describes how attempting to translate one thing to another requires those two things to have, in metaphorical terms, the same shape, or for them to be in similar positions within a network, in order to be effectively translated and not lose specificity. This paper provides a useful overview of STS principles, including translation.

Links and Citations

Project’s website: http://processingcitizenship.eu and @ProcessCitizens

Latest publication from Project: “Processing Alterity, Enacting Europe” out open access on Science, Technology and Human Values: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0162243919827927

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com

Shownotes by Jodie-Lee Trembath

Feature image titled “Fingerprint Scanner” by Mike McKenzie of www.vpnsrus.com

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