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“Information Needs Are Massive”: How The Tech Community Mobilized To Help Refugees

A 15,000-strong group of volunteer “Techfugees” is helping migrants and asylum seekers connect to the web—and each other.

“Information Needs Are Massive”: How The Tech Community Mobilized To Help Refugees
[Photo: Flickr user Feans]

Thousands of techies the world over have banded together to help refugees flooding Europe to stay connected.

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The needs of the waves of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, and other points—more than a million in 2015—go beyond just shelter, safety, and sustenance.

“You can imagine, crossing to a border or coming to a place you don’t know. Information needs are massive,” says Alyoscia D’Onofrio, senior director at the governance technical unit of the International Rescue Committee, which assists refugees and displaced people around the world.

“One of the big differences between this crisis response and many that have gone before is that you’re got probably a much tech-savvier population on the move and probably much better access to handsets and networks.”

Helping to connect those newcomers to information—and each other—is a group of 15,000 digital volunteers who call themselves the Techfugees.

“We are here not to solve the biggest problems of hygiene, water, clean energy because these are sectors that need a lot of expertise,” says Joséphine Goube, the CEO of the nonprofit that quickly came together last year.

Instead, often with the aid of smartphones many migrants and asylum seekers bring with them, the continent’s tech community aids refugees and asylum seekers in getting back online to find their footing in unfamiliar places.

Soon after surviving arduous trips across the Aegean Sea to Lesbos and other Greek islands, migrants were supplied cellphone chargers alongside other essentials, D’Onofrio says. Smartphones let them connect with loved ones left behind through apps like Facebook and WhatsApp and share safety information and travel tips.

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The devices also let aid organizations like the IRC provide verified information about travel options and places to seek assistance in languages refugees speak—even when conditions are changing more rapidly than paper flyers can be distributed.

“Providing a flow of real-time relevant information is so much easier through a web-based platform that people can access on their phones than it is in a much more old-fashioned way when information is changing all the time,” says D’Onofrio.

The IRC has received substantial funding from tech companies to support its efforts, and individual tech workers have flocked to dozens of conferences and hackathons organized by Techfugees around the world since an initial conference in London last October.

“We were actually overwhelmed by the response to our conference,” says Goube, “It just went viral.”

Affiliates of the group have since helped provide infrastructure for refugees to connect to Wi-Fi—even in places with limited electricity—and energize their phones through solar-powered charging hubs. They’ve also developed websites and apps to teach new arrivals everything from basic coding skills that could help them earn a living to how to navigate government bureaucracies in their new countries.

“Things that seem very trivial to us can actually be very complicated,” says Vincent Olislagers, a member of a team developing an interactive chatbot called HealthIntelligence, which is designed to provide refugees in Norway with information about using the country’s health care system. The tool was developed after the team met with a recent arrival to the country who had difficulty arranging hospital transportation for his pregnant wife due to language barriers and financial constraints.

“He had to call, for his wife, his caretaker at the refugee center,” Olislagers says. “The caretaker had to send an ambulance at the right location.”

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The team is working with Norwegian health officials and refugee aid groups to ultimately make the chatbot available as part of a standard package of materials provided to refugees entering the country. The project was a finalist in an October hackathon organized by Techfugees in Oslo. The hackathon’s ultimate winner was a group called KomInn, which pairs families fluent in Norwegian with newcomers who come to their homes to practice the language over dinner. That group developed a digital tool to streamline finding matches, which had previously been a laborious process, says Goube.

“They had to manually match people,” she says. “It was just a catastrophe.”

The Techfugees group is undeterred by the mounting anti-immigrant sentiment that has made some politicians and tech companies wary of outwardly supporting efforts to help new arrivals, Goube says.

The goal isn’t to push aside traditional nonprofits and volunteers, she adds: “We’re here to provide tech support to the NGOs—have them enter the 21st century, basically.”

About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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