Vaccinating Europe's undocumented: A policy scorecard

Conversations with Data: #86

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Welcome to the latest Conversations with Data newsletter!

What are the challenges in vaccinating undocumented people in Europe, and how do country policies differ? This is a critical issue Netherlands-based investigative outlet Lighthouse Reports aimed to examine in its latest cross-border investigation.

The crowdsourced open data project involved data journalist Eva Constantaras and data scientist Htet Aung developing a policy scorecard by working with researchers and crowdsourcing data from 18 European countries. What's more -- data journalists and immigration reporters covering these countries can still take part in the investigation.

You can listen to the entire podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Eva and Htet below.

What we asked

What inspired Lighthouse Reports to examine the vaccination policies for Europe's undocumented people?

One of the original missions of Lighthouse Reports was to improve the quality of migration reporting in Europe. Our reporters in our network had surfaced this issue that kept coming up: Politicians across Europe realised that anti-immigration policies were undermining public health and social services overall -- but they also made for really good politics. Anti-immigrant rhetoric was really popular, and it was playing well in countries experiencing a rise of populism.

But at the same time, these governments realised that denying healthcare to undocumented people is a pretty bad policy. What our reporters were asking us was how was this playing out in real life? Are governments actually taking care of the healthcare needs of undocumented people or not? That was the kernel of the investigation, and that was our starting point.

How difficult was obtaining this data, and how did this tie in with the policy scorecard?

I think I have a longer list of the data we could not collect than what we were able to collect. So, for example, governments make it very difficult even to estimate the number of undocumented people within the borders of any specific country. Because we don't know how many undocumented people there are, we also don't know how many undocumented people are getting vaccinated. We don't know how many undocumented people are being hospitalised, nor how many have died during the pandemic.

Knowing that those were kind of our limitations on the data that we wouldn't be able to collect, our question was what data are we able to collect that would inform migration reporting, and that would be meaningful to newsrooms? That's what led us to this policy scorecard idea. So what policies are governments proposing in terms of the COVID-19 vaccination, and are undocumented people included in those policies or not?

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How did you establish the criteria for the scorecard?

To figure out what should be included in the scorecard, we sat down with PICUM, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants. This is an umbrella organisation that advocates for undocumented people. We mainly spoke with their advocacy officer Alyna Smith. We wanted to find the barriers to undocumented people getting vaccinated, and how do we measure those barriers? They put us in touch with service providers in about five different countries to have these initial conversations. On the ground, when an undocumented person wants to get vaccinated, what could get in their way? And how could policies address those? That's how we came up with these categories.

Talk to us more about these scorecard categories.

The first question is quite obvious: Are there even any policies in place? Is there transparency around a country's vaccine policy? Our starting point was can we find this information out or not? Our second big question was, are undocumented people included in these policies or not? We found out from our interviews that in many countries they don't even mention how undocumented people are going to be treated. Instead, service providers and undocumented people have to read between the lines to determine if they can get vaccinated.

That's how we came up with other categories. If you think about it practically, if you're an undocumented person and you can't get vaccinated in a country, it might be because they require a national ID when you register. If you don't have a national ID, you can't register. It might include things like are there ways to register if you don't have internet access? Can you just make a phone call? That would be a big barrier. So that's how we came up with the marginalised access category. And then finally, are there guarantees that if you do get vaccinated that you won't get deported or reported to the authorities?

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Tell us more about the process of running the investigation. Who did you work with and how did you work together?

I spoke with Paul Bradshaw, who ran Help Me Investigate through Birmingham University. He's done a lot of crowdsourcing of data projects. I also spoke with a data journalist in Argentina, who has done groundbreaking data investigations using crowdsourcing for data collection. After speaking with them both, I designed the project based on their experience and their advice.

We had one researcher for each European country. Once we recruited our base of volunteer researchers, we had an online orientation session where we explained the overall objectives of the project. We took them through the structure of the scorecard, so our different categories and our different questions under the categories. Using Google Sheets, we gathered all of these documents, all the references, and they identified which of the documents were going to help them answer the questions in our research survey.

Then we brought everybody together again for a scoring sprint. We had a Google Form that our data scientist Htet helped us build. Once all the researchers were finished, we went back and did a lot of data cleaning, and we learnt the hard way that some of the questions we had asked were much too specific or too broad. We went through about a month or two of cleaning the data and organising the spreadsheets before we were able to turn it over to test for processing.

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What are some of the trends you've seen policywise from this investigation so far?

One thing I found surprising uniformly is how risk-averse policies are. Across Europe, countries tended to be more transparent about issues that are considered uncontroversial. For example, it was pretty easy to find most countries ID policies, residency policies, privacy policies because these are politically low risks. But as soon as it came to anything that might cause some sort of populist backlash -- issues like whether undocumented people would have access, whether the vaccine would be free for them, whether they had the same choices of the vaccine.

Any other surprising findings?

All of these countries that you think of as reasonably progressive were fairly silent on these issues. For example, Germany is regarded as having a fairly robust social welfare state. However, it was very difficult to evaluate how well they were taking care of these more vulnerable people in society. For me, journalistically, it brings up a lot of questions that I would want to FOI for more data.

We also found that some countries had a more positive story than we would have expected. For instance, Belgium, which tends to be viewed as fairly hostile to undocumented people, has a pretty decentralised approach. For example, we found groups providing services offer a very robust programme in Brussels to vaccinate undocumented people.

What are some of the lessons learned from this investigation?

I think you're one of our big lessons learnt is that there we probably should have run through the process with a couple of researchers from start to finish. This would have allowed us to eliminate some of these questions that were not relevant or our researchers could not answer. Most of our researchers didn't necessarily have a specific background in covering migration issues or detailed policy work. Instead, most of them had more of a general data journalism background.

This meant we had to repeat the process quite a few times until we were happy with the completeness of our research. It would have been better to go a little more thoroughly through the research and identify more potential places where we could find the research, which would have sped up the process.

How can interested journalists get involved?

This policy scorecard is an open-source cross-border investigation, and all of the documentation and data is freely available on our Github. Send us your pitches if you are a data journalist or an immigration reporter interested in doing a case study or a deep dive into an immigration health policy. We have several stories that have been published (or are about to be) looking at specific European countries such as Ireland, Greece, Germany and Portugal. We are particularly interested in hearing from journalists in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Latest from

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Newsletters are a great way to keep up to date with what's is happening in the field of data journalism. But with so many out there, how do you know which ones you should really subscribe to? Simona Bisiani from analysed over 100 newsletters on data and journalism. Here is our selection.

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Our next conversation

Our next conversation will feature Sinduja Rangarajan, a senior investigative data reporter at Bloomberg. She is an award-winning journalist based in the United States with a background in investigative reporting, data and collaborating with academics. Previously, she worked for Mother Jones and Reveal. Drawing on her current and past stories, we will discuss how journalists can use data to power their immigration reporting in the United States.

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As always, don't forget to let us know who you would like us to feature in our future editions. You can also read all of our past editions here or subscribe to the newsletter here.


Tara from the EJC data team,

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