By Gila Norich
UNICEF’s NextGen event held on October 10th in collaboration with Techfugees served as a strong reminder that the brightest and most well-placed in the tech sector remain deeply engaged in supporting the development of tech-based solutions that address the needs of refugees and other displaced placed persons, of which there are a staggering 65M around the world today.
The event opened with an emotive presentation by Steve Vranakis, Executive Creative Director of Google Creative Lab, who visited Lesbos in Autumn 2015, in the aftermath of a summer that brought nearly 1M refugees and asylum seekers – men, women, and children fleeing for their lives – onto European shores.
Recalling the frame of mind that summer, Vranakis opened, “people in the government were arguing in parliament and places like that, so I brought my team of creative activists [to Lesbos] who were uniquely positioned to make things quickly.”
In under 48 hours, his team came up with refugeeinfo.eu, a website designed to provide timely and much needed logistical information to the new arrivals; things like where go to find shelter, where to sleep, eat, receive medical care, and most importantly, information about the refugee application process – the long and opaque application each person claiming asylum must make in order to obtain official recognition and legal status.
Steve mentioned the success the app had in keeping new arrivals safe in their first hours and days on foreign soil. Built in google docs, it was kept black and white to conserve battery power and effectively a CMS so that NGOs could update it in real time, use and deploy it easily.
“In harnessing technology for the refugee crisis, Wi-Fi and battery life become Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” Vranakis told a packed audience of technologists, development practitioners and young professionals inspired by NextGen’s call to action. Today, over a year into the current refugee crisis, 30 NGOs and counting still use the site to convey information and it is accessed by 1,000 refugees daily.
Steve Vranakis’ introduction made the point early: When implemented correctly, technology is a valuable tool for change. In the words of one of the panelists to follow, “This whole movement is about “providing tech support to refugees.”
But a question begs answering – how do we know what’s implemented correctly? The evening’s panelists – representatives from leading refugee tech organizations Techfugees, Hello Hubs, Little Bridge, and Worldwide Tribe – provided important insights into the main issues concerning refugee tech. These organizations exemplify leading examples where technology is being applied successfully to mitigate specific social challenges exacerbated by the refugee crisis – peer and family interaction, access to education, and women’s empowerment, among others.
Moderating the discussion, Krizia Delgado, Manager of the Global Immigration Program at the Jamae Law Group and head of the International Migration and Refugee Hub Project, prompted the panelists to distil both the why and the how refugee tech is bringing important change.
Tech is a tool
“What’s most important are the actual users behind the technology,” Katrin Macmillan of Hello Hubs, a community-built, off-grid internet kiosks for education and development, asserted.
“For us, it is Important that refugees build the technology. As a tool, the Hubs provides a way to hear the grassroots news, stories that go beyond a reductionist news cycle. The displaced from all around the world can talk about and share their experiences – and be heard.”
Josephine Goube, COO of Techfugees, a London-based enterprise leading the tech community response to the needs of refugees, explained, “quite simply, technology connects people. In contrast to the way people in western economies use apps and technology – namely for productivity reasons – refugees are using technology to communicate.”
User-centered design and data privacy
Panelist agreed that a new paradigm in tech and in humanitarian aid is essential. Macmillan of Hello Hubs asserted, [it is] absolutely crucial to make sure solutions are human-centered and community-led. Ten years out, they want to see refugees building their own technologies, completely on their own.
Referring to criticism that regular use of technology might be bad for children, Macmillan responded, “Saying that making the internet available to kids is only going to increase their use of porn websites, etc. completely devalues children’s ambitions. Children really want to learn and explore the world.” Technology, she is certain, is enabling them to do so.
Goube of Techfugees was quick to note the prospects and applicability of Blockchain and Bluetooth 5.0, which can connect to other phones that are over 700m away. “3G has security issues, whereas Bluetooth is much cheaper.” Crowdcaster was also mentioned as a breakthrough technology, which allows 140 seconds of radio, allowing a means of direct and on-the-ground, real-time communication between refugees and western audiences.
Where is the ecosystem headed?
“Anyone who didn’t make it (succeed) has been phased out,” said Goube, referring to the refugee-tech ecosystem that blossomed over the past year. “1 year on – one may view this as rather soon to declare coming of age – but perhaps its standard in a fast-moving tech environment – we are seeing the structuring of an eco-system; collaborations are forming; we are seeing the maturing of organizations and partnerships.”
“Because they aren’t flashy and fancy, they typically do not attract investors,” explained Goube. “This often makes it hard to secure buy-in from larger scale investors.” Indeed, most initiatives are still running thanks to the unwavering commitment of volunteers who are seeing an undisputed positive impact on the lives of beneficiaries.
Despite the overwhelming versatility of getting by with a crew of volunteers, facilitating tech in support for the needs of refugees does require various forms of financial backing. Richard Thanki from Worldwide Tribe mentioned the secret to his organization’s achievement was in crowdfunding. “We began telling stories and making documentaries, which are available on youtube. Worldwide Tribe raised 400K GBP. “This is a thermometer that says people do care.”
How to measure the impact of tech for refugees?
Hello Hubs benefits from 17 years of research into how children become autodidactic. They have harnessed this research to see what can happen when children are left to their own devices to learn. In their words, this research makes it easier to fundraise and scale. Another panelist, Emma Rogers, CEO and Founder of Little Bridge, said that her organization helped refugee women emerge from their homes and begin to learn English.
Noting the importance of impact measurement, the panelists also carefully warned against being too dogmatic in the impact measurement process, citing especially the danger of developing overly analytical approaches to measuring impact.
“Some impacts cannot be measured by data and they should not be reduced into data points.” Goube put it further into perspective, “While some may not have exact numbers, we know that technology has helped people get rescued at sea. Access to technology allows refugees to be better informed about their immediate and long-term futures and as a result, they can make better decisions.
Indeed, a key takeaway shared by all the speakers throughout the evening was the important role technology is playing and continues to play in addressing both the short and long-term needs of refugees and the communities and countries absorbing them.
Yet it also did not obscure the fact that tech solutions for and with refugees are often a unique variety. They were careful to note that what works is not a one size fits all approach, and likewise, warned against blindly applying the same solutions that are popular and widely used in western settings. “By nature, most of the solutions needs to be very – extremely – basic.”
As Vranakis of Google Creative Lab put it at the start of the event, “When you provide refugees with the possibility of stability, you’re already doing so much.”