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Searching for the wanted and unwanted effects of innovation

How does ICT affect society? Mirjam van Reisen, professor Computing for Society at the Leiden Centre of Data Science, is intrigued by this question. We speak with her about innovation, changes in health care, and mobile human trafficking. ‘Innovation has many benefits, but it can also be very disruptive.’

Mirjam van Reisen is busy. She is a professor in both Leiden and Tilburg, lives in Brussels and frequently travels to Africa for research. She deals with research topics such as ageing, health, migration and globalisation. How are all these things related? And, in particular, how they are affected by ICT?

Where does your interest in Africa come from?

‘I started traveling at a young age, and saw a lot of poverty at that time. I wanted to understand what we could do about it. Not in a charitable way; these people know very well what they can and want to do in their own society. But I do think that we, as an international community, have a shared responsibility. In my research, I focus on how Europe and Africa are related to each other. Lately, this relationship is changing a lot under the influence of migration, ageing and innovation. This is happening, for example, in the area of health care.’

What kind of change is going on in that area?

‘Many Africans who have migrated to Europe transfer money to their relatives in Africa. Altogether, these so-called remittances amount to enormous sums of money. Quite often, remitters pay for health care for their families back home. They obviously want this money to be used well, which leads to higher standards in terms of quality and transparency. An interesting question is: how can we organise health care in a way that will allow remitters to be more involved and to have better insight into the well-being of their ill family members?’

And how can we make that happen?

‘You can imagine that, in the future, this will be possible with the help of data traffic, using e-health and mobile phones. That an international network will be created around the patient, with all kinds of data traffic in which not only the patient is involved, but also the family abroad. A data-driven internationalisation of health care, that is. This would coincide with a change that is already happening: that healthcare is becoming increasingly data-driven. How these two major shifts can fit together, and what kind of impact they have on the way we organise care, those are interesting questions.’

So for you as a researcher, ICT is not only a means; you also investigate the impact of ICT on society?

‘Yes, that is what intrigues me most. On the one hand, ICT offers many possibilities for researchers. Using big data and analysing social media, for instance, we can follow the spread of diseases, get a better idea of ​​what migratory routes are used, and map how certain groups organise themselves into networks. But, on the other hand, we must not forget that ICT affects society in many ways. That is what I want to investigate, especially because innovation can create all sorts of unforeseen problems.’

Could you elaborate on that?

‘Often, we start from the idea that ICT is inherently good. The idea that, if you want to stimulate progress and economic growth, ICT and innovation are the way to go. And indeed, innovation brings us many positive things - I also like to use the latest gadgets and applications - but it can also be very disruptive. The point is, a lot of innovation comes from the West and meets a need that exists there, but that does not always mean there is a similar need in Africa, for example. Yet, these new ICT applications also end up on African markets. This sometimes has strange, unexpected results. Like in the Sinai desert, where a new form of extortion and human trafficking was developed with the help of ICT.’

How does that work?

‘Many refugees from Africa travel through the Sinai desert in hopes of reaching Israel, but many of them are kidnapped by traffickers during the trip. The traffickers use mobile phones to call the families of the kidnapped refugees, and demand large amounts of money. During the telephone conversation, the prisoner is often tortured in order to blackmail the family even further. The family must then transfer the money through mobile services such as MoneyGram. Some ten years ago, this form of extortion would have been technically impossible. But now, facilitated by mobile phones and mobile money transactions, it has become part of migration patterns.’

Could we have foreseen that something like this would happen?

‘Of course nobody is guilty in that sense: no one has brought these ICT applications on the market with the intention to facilitate human trafficking. But it is happening, nonetheless. The problem is that we have no idea of ​​this kind of impact, because we don’t even think about it. I want to change that. I consider that my task within the Leiden Centre of Data Science: to not only look at what we can do with big data and ICT, but also, to consider how it is changing society.’

Prof. dr. Mirjam van Reisen is professor Computing for Society at the Leiden Centre of Data Science. She is also professor of International Relations, Innovation and Care at Tilburg University, where she directs the research network Globalisation, Ageing, Innovation and Care (GAIC). Van Reisen is founder and director of Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA), a group of experts on the relations between Europe and developing countries. She is also a member of the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) and chair of the Committee on Developmental Cooperation (COS). In 2012, Van Reisen received a Golden Image Award from President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, for her work in the context of peacebuilding and development.


This article is part of a series of interviews with researchers from the Leiden Centre of Data Science (LCDS). LCDS is a network of researchers from different scientific disciplines, who use innovative methods to deal with large amounts of data. Collaboration between these researchers leads to new solutions to problems in science and society.

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