Living in the countryside or in the centre of the city? Is there a school for the children? Are there jobs and training opportunities? These are questions that an algorithm for Refugees to find a suitable place for them to live. Hannes Schammann, Professor of Migration Policy at the University of Hildesheim, is developing Match'In, a digital matching service for local authorities and refugees, with a team of researchers from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. It will soon be trialled in practice.
The demand is there: 190,000 asylum seekers came to Germany in 2021, and by the end of October this year more than 180,000 people asylum. There are also more than one million refugees from Ukraine. A place to live must be found for each of these people. They not only have to find a job, but also build up a social network. In future, algorithms could help with the distribution of refugees in Germany. And also promote integration if more attention is paid to the needs of the refugees.
The distribution of refugees to the federal states in Germany has so far been based on the Königstein key: based on tax revenue and the number of inhabitants, each federal state must fulfil an admission quota. North Rhine-Westphalia takes in 21 per cent of all refugees, Saxony just under five per cent. Each federal state has its own regulations for further distribution to the municipalities, often staggered according to the population or economic performance of the municipalities. Match'In starts with this distribution in the federal states.
The new solution sounds simple: refugees use an app to indicate what they would like from their new place of residence and the local authorities tell them what they can offer. An algorithm compares the two and suggests the best place for the refugees to live based on the data. Schammann and his team have been researching how to make this work in practice for a year and a half. They have already defined an extensive catalogue of questions, which includes topics such as career, family and leisure activities and collects data about the municipalities, such as the range of schools and medical care.
Match'In has a good chance of becoming established in Germany because it has the right partners: the federal states. Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate are each taking part in the pilot project with five to six local authorities. The aim is to test whether the algorithm can make distribution easier for the municipalities and federal states. "In the best-case scenario, our algorithm should change the distribution across the board," says Schammann. This is why the algorithm is constantly being further developed during the pilot phase. The first distributions in the federal states will start next spring.
Elias Bender considers the project to be ambitious but promising. He is head of department at the Rhineland-Palatinate Ministry of Integration and is responsible for the distribution of refugees, among other things. At the transfer centre, employees check which local authority has just stopped taking in refugees, which refugees need medical care and whether relatives are already living in Rhineland-Palatinate. They are currently distributing an average of 600 refugees per month.
The Match'In algorithm not only gives the refugees more say, but also gives the staff more information about the people they have to accommodate. Bender wants to use the project to find out whether the decades-old process of distribution can be improved.
However, it is already clear that the algorithm will not distribute the refugees to the countries alone. "The employees are still responsible for the decisions," says Bender. The algorithm is merely a decision-making aid.
However, the implementation is not as simple as it sounds in theory. Algorithms can discriminate - depending on how they are programmed. To minimise the risk of individual refugees having disadvantages in the matching process due to their nationality or lack of qualifications, Schammann's research team has developed a large catalogue of questions. Around 50 questions cover everything to do with the refugees' marital status, occupation, leisure activities and health. These include questions such as whether barrier-free housing is required or whether medical care should only be provided by female doctors.
It takes one and a half to two hours to answer all the questions. Schammann knows that this takes a long time. But the detailed survey is necessary in order to be able to take integration-relevant criteria into account. For this reason, the profiles of the municipalities are also extensive. This avoids cherry-picking the best skilled workers.
The prioritisation of answers makes this even more difficult, as the answers in the questionnaire become less predictable. Each refugee can decide for themselves which aspects are particularly important to them. For example, this could be an LGBTQIA+ community or a rural place of residence. This also gives the refugees a say.
From next year, refugees in the participating federal states will be able to take part in Match'In on a voluntary basis. To begin with, the questions are filled out together with an employee at the initial reception centre and entered into a software programme. "We are initially concerned with the content and not with a nice user interface," says Schammann. However, the aim is for refugees to be able to answer all questions on their own in an app in future, says the migration researcher. This may also make them more likely to answer questions truthfully. This is important so that women or LGBTQIA people, for example, receive the necessary protection.