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How we achieved a successful cross-disciplinary workshop

Holly D Mitchell8 October 2019

Written by Lydia Franklinos, PhD Candidate, Institute for Global Health

As a veterinarian working across the fields of global health and ecology, I know from experience that cross-disciplinary work can be hard. You speak different languages, think in different ways, and it can be daunting providing an opinion on a subject you know relatively little about. Despite these challenges, the positives of collaborating with people across disciplines are endless; the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure was due to collaboration between biologists and chemists, the discovery of Uranus was due to collaborative work between an optician and an astronomer, and getting man to land on the moon involved collaboration between physicists, mathematicians, engineers physiologists and national governments.

With this in mind, I jumped at the opportunity proposed by UCL Grand Challenges to work with another PhD student from a different field. UCL Grand Challenges aims to cultivate cross-disciplinary collaborations to provide solutions to matters of pressing societal concern. A Grand Challenge award was advertised addressing the issue of migration and displacement in light of the recent UCL-Lancet Commission on Migration and Health co-authored by many colleagues from UCL’s Institute for Global Health (IGH), including my PhD supervisor, Prof Ibrahim Abubakar. Reading the report, I was struck by the gravity of the situation; one billion people were recorded as having migrated in 2018 alone, and there are currently more refugees globally than at any point since the Second World War. This level of migration will have great implications for global health, the global development agenda and political discourse at all levels of society. To meet the needs of migrants, the communities they leave behind, and their new, host communities, requires accurate data on who is moving, where they are going, and why. However, current information on migrant populations is relatively poor. The Commission provides a global mandate for better data on the drivers and impacts of migration on health, and it proposes that ‘big data’ could provide much needed information on how and why people are moving. The Commission also calls for increased cross-disciplinary work across the field of migration to address this great challenge.

Prof Ibrahim Abubakar of UCL Institute for Global Health giving a plenary session on the UCL-Lancet Commission on Migration and Health

I was intrigued by the report’s suggestion that big data could be used to address gaps in migrant data, since I use big data sources in my research. I use remote-sensing satellite data to understand environmental drivers of mosquito-borne disease risk (i.e., climate and land use factors). Big data refers to large, complex data from diverse sources, ranging from social media and mobile phone data, to large-scale long-term environmental datasets. Previous examples of big data use in migration and health research include the use of mobile phone data to predict patterns of human movement during natural disasters and examining the effect of human movement on disease transmission. Another potential application is the use of high-resolution satellite remote sensing data to map the relationship between environmental change and human movement. Overall, the ever-increasing availability of big data provides an immense opportunity to address gaps in knowledge on migrant populations and the drivers of migration patterns. I was excited at exploring the prospect of big data use for migration research but I had limited knowledge of human migration and so I needed to find a student studying migration to collaborate with. I knew the perfect person!

Lydia and Bekki introduce the workshop: Can Big Data Help Migration Research?

I met Bekki at the start of my PhD as we were both funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership scheme. Bekki’s background is even more cross-disciplinary than mine, having studied music and physics before starting a PhD at UCL on the effects of climate change on human migration. I contacted her about the UCL Grand Challenges grant, and after just one meeting we had developed our proposal; a cross-disciplinary workshop to explore the use of big data for migration research. We would address the call for cross-disciplinary collaborations by bringing together academics, humanitarian NGOs, policy-makers and big data researchers to facilitate knowledge exchange, and develop a better understanding of how big data can meet the needs of migration research and policy, as well as the needs of migrant populations.

After a few weeks of planning we submitted our proposal, and to our delight, we were awarded the grant to host the workshop. We wanted to maximise the opportunity for discussions across disciplines, so we decided to centre the event on three panel discussions; the use of big data for migrant healthcare, environmental drivers of migration, and data security and ethics. The afternoon session would then involve working group tasks to develop solutions to any key challenges highlighted in the panel discussions. We collated a list of suitable people to invite to the event and to our surprise there appeared to be a great willingness to network and collaborate across the different disciplines in the field.  This meant that in a short period we amassed diverse panels of experts for the different themes.

I sought the help of a friend who facilitates innovation at a large national charity to ask her advice on how the workshop could be most impactful. This experience was a great insight into the corporate world! She helped me develop the event by deciding on measurable outcomes of the workshop and how to the structure the day to achieve them. Several action plans later, and we had developed an event plan which would address the main objectives of the workshop:

  • Enable improved understanding of the current status of big data use in migration research across academia, policy and NGO sectors.
  • Identify and prioritise the key challenges to using big data in migration research.
  • Foster collaborations between different disciplines.

Panellists discuss the use of big data to understand environmental drivers of migration

The planning paid off because the workshop was a great success, bringing together 50 attendees across academia, UK and international policy, and humanitarian NGOs. The panel sessions were insightful and key challenges were raised across the themes. These included questions such as; how do we gain access to big data, how can we act ethically when using it, how do we ensure data security, how do we measure the benefits of using big data for migration research, and who benefits from increased migration data collection?

In the working groups session, each group used a problem-solution canvas to develop solutions. This is a technique is often used in business to translate problems into effective solutions in a straightforward, structured way but, to my knowledge has rarely been used in academic settings. The working group session was intensive but was a great opportunity to test a new method of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Fortunately, some brilliant student volunteers from IGH chaired these groups and fed results back to us. The proposed solutions ranged from designing statistical methods to help analyse the data, to deconstructing what is meant by ‘big data’ and understanding the power biases within it. The workshop was successful in its main objective of fostering collaborations and we received positive feedback from attendees that felt they had a better understanding of the issue from varied perspectives. One attendee told us;

The workshop was extremely interesting and very well-organised. Congratulations! You managed to bring together people from a diverse set of backgrounds and successfully blend each one’s perspective into the overall thematic of the event”.

Working groups develop solutions to key challenges with the aid of problem-solution canvases

To our surprise, a key issue that came up in discussions throughout the day was the question, “do migrants want big data used in migration research?”. The focus on using big data to understand how and why people are moving fails to consider the fact migrant populations do not always give their consent for its use. In an age when big data use is increasingly being thought of as an invasion of privacy, why should we presume migrants would be fine with their data being used in this way, even if we perceive it will be helping their situation? This important ethical issue, particularly in cases of vulnerable people such as irregular migrants (e.g., people who are trafficked or have otherwise undertaken illegal migration) and displaced persons and refugees. Addressing such assumptions may have been missed at a workshop consisting of largely big data researchers and users. The emergence of this pertinent question during the event provides a great illustration of why cross-disciplinary collaborations are needed to address solutions to complex challenges.

Lydia is a PhD student on the London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership investigating the impacts of global change processes such as climate change and land-use change, on mosquito-borne disease risk with the intention of informing intervention strategies.