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New AI research project investigates migrant trust and inclusive digital public services

Researchers are investigating what trustworthiness means for migrants in the digital age and how digital public services could be made more inclusive using multimodal conversational AI
People standing in building
In the photo: Silas Rech (left), Johanna Ylipulli, Tom Bäckström, Viivi Eskelinen and Nitin Sawhney. Image: Matti Ahlgren/Aalto University

Finland is renowned for its high levels of trust in government and public institutions, as well as its advanced digitalisation of public services. Yet, trust isn’t equally distributed throughout Finnish society, and migrants in Finland may not always share positive experiences of trust towards authorities or digital services. 

The Trust-M project is a partnership between the City of Espoo, Aalto University, University of Helsinki, and Tampere University. The project team will investigate shared and overlapping challenges in immigration, societal trust, and digital public services. 

‘With our project partners, we are examining how trust is reflected in current digital public services among migrants,’ says Nitin Sawhney, professor of practice at Aalto University’s Department of Computer Science and the lead principal investigator for the Trust-M research consortium. 

‘Based on this understanding, we’ll design hybrid human-AI digital services that incorporate culturally constructed notions of trust and create a pilot version of a multimodal and conversational AI system that migrants could use to more easily access relevant information and better engage with public service providers.’

From research to society

Migrants are not a clear-cut group, but a heterogeneous mix of people from various socio-economic backgrounds, nationalities, and education levels. Developing public services to meet these diverse needs is one of the most pressing challenges for an ageing welfare society. It’s not enough to entice people to move to the country -- migrants must also find meaning and purpose in their new communities. 

In the City of Espoo, the share of foreign-language residents has increased from four per cent in 2000 to twenty per cent in 2022. However, the relative unemployment rate for this demographic is nearly two and a half times higher than Finnish citizens, while local companies in many industry sectors are experiencing severe labor shortages. 

Among migrants arriving from outside the EU, employment rates in Finland are the lowest in the OECD. Although employment levels among immigrants have increased, until recently the gap between migrants and citizens in labour force participation has been 10-20 per cent, whereas the OECD average is one per cent. Moreover, less than half of female migrants in Finland are employed. 

‘One size fits no-one in migration,’ says Teemu Haapalehto, director of immigration affairs at the City of Espoo. ‘We have to take the diversity of our residents into account and ensure a sufficient variety of services and service channels to improve integration and support the civic agency of migrants.’

With a better understanding of both digitalisation and trust, the research team can drive innovative thinking in the public sector. According to Sawhney, the challenge is combining diverse sources of emerging knowledge from experts and migrants themselves, supporting multilingual dialogue, and humans-in-the-loop to make such AI-based systems competent, inclusive, and trustworthy over time.

‘The insights, critical thinking and new knowledge coming from academia are essential for us as we are doing our best to build relevant and trustworthy services,’ says Haapalehto. ‘As new technology innovation in human-centered AI emerges, we’ll understand possibilities to improve our integration efforts further.’ 

People in the classroom
Trust-M members in the photo: Bhuvana Sekar speaking, with Irena Bakic to her right and Rūta Šerpytytė to the far left. Image: Matti Ahlgren/Aalto University

We have to take the diversity of our residents into account and support the civic agency of immigrants

Teemu Haapalehto, director of immigration, City of Espoo

A multi-disciplinary collaboration between academia, industry, and the public sector

The Trust-M project team, which includes Academy of Finland Research Fellow Johanna Ylipulli and Associate Professor Tom Bäckström at Aalto University, aims to broaden the concept of digital public services and migrant trust. This will be done by engaging migrants through ethnographic research, by investigating the interplay of law, policy, and technology, and by developing alternative technologies and service design concepts to support migrants’ integration. 

‘Our aim is not to create something to put up on app stores, because there are better service providers for that type of work,’ says Thomas Olsson, professor at Tampere University. ‘Rather, we’re trying to provide new ideas, concepts, and prototypes that could be further utilised in the design of innovative digital services by other actors, including the City of Espoo and many other partners.’

Commercial providers can also use these understandings and concepts to offer better and more inclusive hybrid digital services to fit the needs of both migrants and public service providers. 

‘To achieve successful inclusive digitisation in society, we need to develop trustworthy technologies that work towards the benefit of all end users,’ says Sara Elo Dean, Watson Solution Architect at IBM, a project collaborator. ‘Therefore, all AI solutions must be based on three ethical principles. First, that the purpose of AI is to augment human intelligence. Second, that data and insights belong to their creator. And third, that new technology and AI systems must be transparent and explainable.’

Elo Dean has an extensive background in working with natural language processing (NLP) and in building AI-powered solutions for clients at IBM. She is confident that by adhering to the three principles, trustworthy and ethical AI can be made a reality.

‘In the context of this project, advancements in NLP and speech technologies allow us to build refined solutions that can interact more precisely with a broader variety of both languages and level of language skills. The research project will build prototypes of trustworthy digital public services and based on continuous feedback from testing and user experiences, the aim is to further improve the digital public services in question,’ says Elo Dean.

Inclusion nurtures agency

As societies become increasingly interconnected and technology races ahead, it is essential that we re-evaluate our perceptions of trust, digitalisation, and public services. If digital public services overlook inclusivity, they run the risk of alienating migrants and Finnish society at large. While the Trust-M project seeks to generate deeper insights into the forces shaping our society, it also aims to help foster a stronger, more inclusive future that recognizes diversity and invites everyone to engage in civic matters. 

Migration is often considered in terms of national politics and policy, but it is the local level that is responsible for supporting people to navigate their day-to-day lives in a new country. Supportive and vibrant communities give meaning to people’s lives. They also offer tacit knowledge and good practices for how to operate in a new society. Digital public services would do well to tap into these communities of both migrants and native citizens for sustained two-way integration and build nurturing foundations of trust from the bottom-up.

‘If the receiving society is not welcoming towards newcomers, migrants may feel let down and start turning away from Finnish society. This is not ideal for the migrants’ or society’s well-being,’ says Viivi Eskelinen, doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki and interaction coordinator of the Trust-M project at Aalto University. ‘People have an inherent need to belong, and migrants are no different.’

The Trust-M project is a collaboration between Aalto University, the University of Helsinki, Tampere University, and the City of Espoo, in partnership with the City of Helsinki, the City of Turku, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, Moniheli, CYF Digital, IBM Consulting, and VoxAI. It received 3,2 million euros in funding from the Strategic Research Council’s Security and Trust in the Age of Algorithms (SHIELD) programme in 2022. It’s first phase will take place in 2023-2025 and a potential second phase in 2025-2028.

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