Empowering migrant workers with technology

“The biggest challenge is trying to figure out where exactly you want to make an impact, because there are so many people who need help.”

Hannah Thinyane

As a child, Hannah Thinyane was always the one who got to share all the candies in the family. “They knew I wouldn’t steal them and would make sure everyone got the right amount of everything”, she laughs. Her strong sense of justice has been driving her life, and her work as a researcher, to this day.

“Through the years I always tried to figure out how to use my computer scientist skills, and research skills, to contribute to alleviate injustice. And at UNU Macau [where she arrived in 2016 to work as a Principal Research Fellow] we had the space to do that: to develop a whole research space in whatever we wanted, as long as it involved ICTs (information and communication technologies) and sustainable development”, she tells us. She chose to start Migrant Tech.

“The main goal of the project was to understand how digital technology can be used to support low paid and less skilled workers, particularly looking at enhancing their human dignity and physical integrity, meaning allowing them to choose what happens to themselves in a dignified way”, Hannah Thinyane explains.

It proposed to do so by generating insights and thought leadership on migration and ICTs; innovating and inventing ICTs in support of migrants, communities, and other affected stakeholders; and incorporating the research findings into evidence-based policymaking.


Digital technologies and human trafficking


“One of the main focuses of Migrant Tech”, Hannah Thinyane explains, was “a theme that developed looking at digital technology against trafficking”.
One of the main projects led by Hannah Thinyane was the “Apprise: Tools for Screening Vulnerable Populations ”. This research, which involved regular research field trips, was aimed at designing screening technology for and with vulnerable workers and frontline responders; exploring the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in supporting decision makers to rapidly triage cases; and the post hoc analysis of interview responses to inform responsive action and policy.

In this project, UNU Macau partnered with Mekong Club , an NGO based in Hong Kong that works with the private sector to bring about sustainable practices against modern slavery across the globe. It firstly helped researchers set up over 30 anti-trafficking stakeholders’ consultations in Thailand. The goal of these consultations – which included police, members from international organisations, NGOs and survivals of trafficking, among others –, “was to understand what problems they faced in victim identification, what technology they had access to, and how they believed that technology could support them”, Hannah Thinyane explains.

“It turned out they needed a screening tool to help them overcome key issues like lack of privacy during initial discussions, lack of training – because people don’t know what trafficking really looks like –, lack of communication – everybody speaks different languages –, and a lack of trust between those who were around watching the conversation and people who were taking part in those discussions”, she says.

After that, Hannah Thinyane and her team developed the Apprise tool, which is “a mobile app that sits on the NGO’s or the frontline worker’s phone and is there to help them in their initial outreach with potential victims of trafficking”. It offers “a series of yes or no questions, translated into the common languages of different workers”, which includes many minority languages. In the end, the app tells the potential victim something like: “It seems you are in a vulnerable situation. Do you want our help to leave?” This point, as the researcher notes, upholds the principle of human integrity and dignity, allowing the potential victim to decide what to do after gaining a better understanding of his/her specific situation.

In practical terms, it works like this, as Hannah Thinyane explains: the frontline worker hands over the phone and a set of headphones to the potential victim, who then goes through the app’s questions in the language he/she chooses; in this process, the frontline inspector holds a screen in which he/she sees which indicators come up from the interview and gets the advice on what to do next, such as taking the person immediately to a shelter, in cases of extreme exploitation.

With the support of Freedom Fund and Humanity United , Apprise was piloted by Thai Government’s Ministry of Labour and Royal Thai Navy as part of their Port In Port Out (PIPO) fishing inspection centres.

The team later expanded the project developing another app, the Apprise Audit, which focuses on facilities, such as factories, and aggregates workers’ responses by facility, addressing fears of retaliation while protecting their anonymity. “So, if you have one person who is brave enough to speak up, then you can change the conditions of that whole facility.”

This solution, the researcher notes, underlines the policy impact of the project. “If you know how people report they have been exploited, you can look for patterns and then make protection strategies based on them.”

“If it wasn’t for Mekong Club, their knowledge of the field and their connections, this would have still remained just a research project. So, it was one of those really great synergistic relationships, where we had the technical expertise and the research backing, and they had the knowledge of the field”, Hannah Thinyane notes.

The Apprise tool is still being used by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which funded part of the research. The Apprise Audit – rebranded now as Diginex Apprise – is currently being maintained by Mekong Club and Diginex, where Hannah Thinyane currently works as director for Global Supply Chain R&D.


Digital technologies and migrant workers’ journeys


Another research project under Migrant Tech consisted of a consultancy study conducted by UNU Macau – by Hannah Thinyane, Michael Gallo and Don Rodney Junio – for the International Labour Organization (ILO). It looked at improving the understanding of how migrant workers utilise digital technologies along their recruitment journey. The work resulted in the report “Use of digital technology in the recruitment of migrant workers ”, which was prepared under the framework of the ILO Integrated Programme on Fair Recruitment (FAIR Project, phase II).

Another research project that Hannah Thinyane developed in Cebu, in the Philippines – together with Sammia Poveda – was a study that investigated the impact of digital skills training on the psychosocial well-being of survivors of sexual exploitation. It also looked at how the training program and the security of high-skilled employment affect recovery and reintegration.

Other Migrant Tech researches include Jenny Ju Bei’s work on “Social Media Usage of Dual Migrants in Border Crossing ”. This research project focused on mainland Chinese dual migrants in Macao, that is, individuals who had left family and friends in other provinces of China and moved to Zhuhai, and migrated daily to Macao across a regulated political border.

Another project was Juhee Kang’s work on “ICT use among North Korean women in South Korea ”, which focused in studying the role of digital technology in the migratory experiences of these women, including how mobile communications play into their journey from North Korea as well as their resettlement in South Korea.

UNU Macau’s Migrant Tech team also included Sophie Zinser, Jenny Ju, Karthik Bhat and Francisca Sassetti.

Looking back at all those years of Migrant Tech research at UNU Macau, the researcher says one of the main challenges was “trying to figure out where exactly you want to make an impact, because there are so many people who need help”. “Being able to say ‘no’ to some, for me, was the hardest thing.”

On the other hand, the major take-away for her was to understand that digital technology is not a silver bullet. “It’s never just a technology problem. Technology can be one factor, but it is not the only one. You need to look at the scaffolding, understand the context and the political dynamics and the essential problems that exist there if you are going to make a real impact.”

But Migrant Tech also had an important impact on researchers themselves, Hannah Thinyane says, especially in the careers of research assistants that came to work with her. “I would just get them out into the field, because there is nothing like field research. You meet the people on the ground, you hear their stories.” Many of those research assistants, she says, “have now entered the space [of fields related to human rights] because of the stories they heard and the applied research they could be part of”.

She still treasures the memory of that multicultural team at UNU Macau and going up and down in the office “hearing people speaking Hindi and Spanish and other languages”. “It was a nice team to be part of.”

Hannah Thinyane has a PhD focusing on human-computer interaction and a history of migration herself. Born in Wales, she grew up in Hong Kong, later moved to Australia, and before moving to Macao she worked in South Africa for over ten years, mainly looking at ICTs for sustainable development and ICTs for transparency and accountability.

She is now based in Australia again. She got her beach back, but she still misses those end-of-day encounters with friends, by the sea, in Macao’s Cheok Van. “Friendships are always what you take away.”