By Sylvanna Falcón.
From October 2021 through to May 2022 undergraduate students from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of California, Berkeley, participated in a human rights investigation with Human Rights First (HRF) and El Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración, AC (IMUMI, The Institute for Migration of Women). Under the direct supervision of university staff, we became part of a binational team (US and Mexico) to track incidents of violence in Mexico affecting non-Mexican migrants, many of whom were asylum seekers, that were being captured online, primarily through news reports or social media posts.
Student researchers used open-source investigation techniques to identify incidents of harms committed against migrants in Mexico. These techniques refer to methodologically accessing publicly available information on the internet, including online news articles, non-governmental or other expert reports, and social media content. For research purposes, the team collated and synthesized this information systemically and went through a process of verification on as many incidents as possible during the research period.
With a primary focus on US President Biden’s administration, which began in January 2021, the students identified more than 400 unique incidents of violence targeting migrants since the start of Biden’s presidency, from reported kidnappings, extortion, and death to allegations of widespread corruption of government officials working alongside drug traffickers. Students recorded all incidents in a shared spreadsheet and tried to verify as many of them as possible. In addition to vetting the source of the information itself, verification meant that students would locate additional online material about a specific incident in order to have more confidence that the incident indeed occurred.
But what to do with all the collection of incidents? How to communicate this information to the general public in an ethical way? What do we gain or lose by depicting migrant violence in a data visualization project? For what purpose, what audience, does this form of documentation serve? Each organization in this partnership had a different purpose for participating in the project. For university students, it was a unique learning experience to systemically collect this kind of online information. HRF, based in the United States, was in need of additional research support to document these cases to put pressure on the US government to change its immigration policies to align with human rights standards and for IMUMI, based in Mexico, the plight of migrant women is their primary focus through advocacy and education efforts.
As we all began to think about the most effective method in which to share this information publicly, the desire to go beyond a text-based report seemed important given the university’s access to various data visualization options. As we agreed to create a digital story and digital map of the incidents, students began to reflect on the ethics of this work, asking pointed questions about the purpose, the desired outcome, and whether or not data visualization results in dehumanization of the migrants. As I navigated these thoughtful queries from students, I encouraged them to acknowledge the various sentiments they felt about the research project itself and about these final deliverables. In the digital report titled ‘Perilous Journeys: Migrants Vulnerable to Violence through Mexico’ they wrote, in part,
Many of us are undergraduate researchers from migrant families with ties to Latin American countries. The cases the team reviewed have evoked feelings of both accomplishment and powerlessness. While proud to help to document the migration-related trauma that is familiar to many of our families and loved ones who have faced migrant-related trauma, our constant exposure to the quantity and severity of these instances is felt on an even deeper emotional and personal level.
Acknowledging their relative privilege by being university students in the United States, the students felt it important to include in the report the following line: ‘As researchers, we cannot stress enough the importance of remaining cognizant of the real names, faces, and lives behind the work we present in this report.’
The ethics of visualizing the data remained front and centre during the duration of the project. And the questions of ethics were multi-layered: from knowingly exposing students to graphic material on a regular basis, from understanding that the material could be mis-used if not careful about the presentation, to inadvertently exposing the safety areas for migrants to authorities, and, most importantly, unintentionally dehumanizing the plight of migrants through dots on a map.
In the end, a data visualization project that turned into a digital report conveyed an ideal synergy between text-based information and learning about the incidents on a map so that readers could geographically situate where the reported incidents occurred. The students opted to add different color markings on the map to distinguish incidents and, moreover, to aid people’s understanding that the extent of the problem is throughout the country of Mexico. Both HRF and IMUMI felt this presentation of the research aided them in their own efforts to raise awareness of migrant violence and to call for change.