Lessons learned from a turbulent year in tech

Joséphine Goube, our CEO, reflects on a year of big challenges for the digital community, and our work making sure the most vulnerable aren’t left behind…

If last year was about content, building and defining what the Techfugees community stands for, this year was about context, the world in which that community exists. 2018 was a wake-up year for people around the world in terms of technology’s potential for harm, and the need for greater accountability from its leaders.

From a scandal-wracked Facebook to a data breach of undisclosed scale hitting Reddit, the idea is beginning to dawn on people that, hey, maybe we should keep an eye on these guys.

Watching the watchmen

As the public’s love affair with social media begins to waver, you’d think we’d have come under fire ourselves. After all, Techfugees is intimately tied to some big players in the tech community; we started life as a Facebook group and partner with Google for Startups, Schibsted, and other major tech players. In reality, this has been our strongest and best-received year yet.

Data misuse. Echo chambers. The spread of hostile narratives. These are things we’ve been warning about – and actively working against – for years now. Among all these skeletons tumbling from the closet, our hackathons have held focus on data security, sustainability & ethics since day one.

This is very much a conversation whose time has come. It’s unfortunate that we were forced to address these concerns early. Factors like hostile state actors abusing refugee data and good old-fashioned police repression in the ‘civilised world’ pressed the issue onto us. But hopefully, some good can come from sharing the lessons we’ve learned.

For one thing, we know not to rely on third parties for a home. We never thought Facebook would be our ultimate hub, and recent events have caused us to step up our plans to build a safe & trusted space online.

That’s why we’re developing Basefugees, our own platform which puts us in control of how our mission can develop in future. Stay tuned for more news in the coming months.

Speaking truth to power

Previous years mostly saw interest from journalists and tech-for-good enthusiasts. This year was different, with a lot more government bodies reaching out to us. We’ve been invited to more and more conferences involving both public and private institutions who want to understand how technology might be used to benefit and empower the most vulnerable in our society.

These events have included the World Refugee Council in San Francisco, the OECD Annual Conference, we’ve even been invited to speak about our work for the opening of SXSW just before Bernie Sanders got on stage.

We don’t seek to become political ourselves, we are and always will be a neutral observer and advisor to those who want to learn more about one of this age’s critical issues. But it’s still heartening to see some appetite for positive change from some unexpected corners. Who’d have thought we’d find ourselves addressing some of the biggest names in the fossil fuel industry at the ONS conference on the subject of climate change.

Admittedly, nothing has been implemented yet to fix things, but these things take time. We’ll continue leading by example by keeping refugees at the heart of everything we do.

Growing confidence together

At our Global Summit last year, one in every five attendees was a refugee. This year it was one in four, and one in three of our speakers, including former Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou.

We’ve stayed true to the mission statement with which we launched. This year has only boosted my confidence that refugee talent exists, and can come to the forefront of real-world solutions when it’s given the space to do so. These people aren’t helpless, our work isn’t a short-lived euphoria.

So, looking ahead. In 2019, we’ll be calling for more quality technology that stands up to robust ethical scrutiny, like the five winners of the Techfugees Global Challenges. We’ll also continue engaging with policy-makers at the right level to ensure it’s a strong year for the tech for good movement.

These partnerships will be critical. Mark Zuckerberg’s farcical appearance before the US Congress this year proves that politicians need help even knowing what questions to ask, let alone how to formulate solutions to the problem of data ethics.

Government bodies need to get a firm grip on technology. Cyber warfare is the new frontier of geopolitics, with the British NHS falling victim to an attack this year. Meanwhile, social media fuelling the gilets jaunes protests across France shows that tech-driven headaches aren’t just issues of foreign policy.

It’s set to be a big year, and Techfugees stand ready to pitch in with our engaged, informed pool of refugee talent, helping craft solutions that work for everyone.

This post was written by the team at Sookio.

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