Dinusha Bandara is delving into the digital experiences of Sri Lankan Australian families

As a statistician, Dinusha Bandara’s career was characterised by diverse leadership and technical roles at organisations such as the University of Auckland and the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Her experience in data governance, data linkage and health data surveillance led her to consider the evolving nature of technology and how to keep up with best practices in data management.

She is now embarking on a PhD focusing on the digital experiences of Sri Lankan Australian Families, which will help her address concerns about ethical and social issues related to datafication. Here she talks about the events that led her to start a PhD within the Deakin University node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child.

Where did you grow up and what work did you do before starting your PhD?

I was born in Sri Lanka and I grew up in New Zealand where I lived for 20 years before moving to Melbourne in 2017. Melbourne, Victoria has the largest population of Sri Lankans in Australia, and it is the largest Sri Lankan community hub outside of Sri Lanka itself. I love this multicultural aspect of Melbourne and feel that the general community is very accepting of different cultures.

My career focused on large-scale data linkage, data management and data analysis. Before I started my PhD, I was at the Australian Institute of Family Studies where I was responsible for teams working with national datasets for linkage and integration as well as managing data teams of several flagship longitudinal studies such as Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). Some aspects of my work involved advisory and round table discussions relating to changes in legislation about sharing data within government departments. One of my concerns was ethics and making people aware of how their data was being shared. I think it’s good to link data, but people need to be informed.

Why did you decide to do a PhD and why did you choose Deakin?

My mum encouraged me to go down the PhD path. She was an academic at a university in Sri Lanka until she became ill and came to live with me in New Zealand and then Melbourne. I had many opportunities in the past to take on a PhD, especially when I worked for the University of Auckland, but it was never the right time. I was looking after my children and then my mum and I just couldn’t think of doing a PhD. My mum passed away in 2021 and on the first anniversary of her death, I decided that it was time.

I started searching for the right project and supervisors. Despite knowing and working with a lot of academics, nothing sparked my interest until I saw an advertisement for a PhD scholarship with Deakin University and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child. The advertisement talked about datafication, a term that I was unfamiliar with despite my background and experience with data. I thought, ‘What on earth, are they talking about?’. I was not aware that this field existed and didn’t know it was a field that you could study. I looked up the academics who were involved and it was Dr Luci Pangrazio and Professor Julian Sefton-Green.

The moment I started to speak to Luci and Julian and then later Dr Andy Zhao, I just knew this was it. From my own experience and hearing stories from my mum, I know how important it is to find the right university and the right supervisory team. I think that is what I was looking for and I found it at Deakin.

My supervisors are very encouraging and supportive. They know my weaknesses and they’re trying to help me to improve my skills in those areas. Working under their mentorship will enable me to contribute significantly to the advancement of data-related fields.

Deakin University was my choice because of my supervisors – they are world-renowned leaders in my chosen field – but also because of Deakin’s commitment to nurturing a supportive and inclusive research environment. Anybody thinking about doing a PhD should seriously consider Deakin.

Describe your project and why you chose this topic.

My project delves into the digital experiences of Sri Lankan Australian families with young children living in Melbourne. I am investigating the use of digital technologies, digital practices and digital data privacy/protection – all of the topics relating to datafication.

I chose the topic because I think we need to understand how communities from different cultures adapt to digital technologies so that we can empower families and promote inclusivity. The focus on privacy-conscious data practices, the creation of resources and strategies, and the emphasis on community collaboration align with my interest in increasing awareness of datafication.

When I started my PhD, I didn’t intend to focus on my community but when one of my supervisors suggested it, I realised that it made perfect sense. Fortunately, with my previous research experience in longitudinal study participant recruitment, I found myself in the perfect position to take on this challenge and make a difference.

What are you hoping to achieve with your PhD research?

My PhD research is the first of its kind and it is focused on making a meaningful impact on the Sri Lankan migrant community in Australia. The response so far has been fantastic, with over 100 Sri Lankan parents and guardians from Melbourne participating in the study. Melbourne-based Sri Lankan radio and TV stations have already featured the introduction and recruitment of the study with a remarkable outreach.

I anticipate that my findings will be used to develop resources and strategies to help Australian families from migrant backgrounds better understand and manage the various implications of digital technologies. My research study also has the potential to spark important public discussions on technology use and increase awareness of datafication. Moreover, I envision its pivotal role in shaping social policies, ultimately contributing to the overall well-being of all Australian families.

Dinusha Bandara

News 7 February 2024