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Hacking the refugee crisis

Hacking the refugee crisis


A group of technologists are trying to build solutions for vulnerable migrants

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A TechFugees meetup
A TechFugees meetup

When he was a kid, Mike Butcher's dad took him to an army base where the government had flown in refugees from a natural disaster in Asia. "It was a time when governments would just do that kind of thing, without worrying about the politics much," he recalled. Butcher grew up playing with those kids, developing an empathy toward them. "When I saw the events of last summer, the kids dying in the sea, I knew I had to do more than just give to charity," he said. Amidst chronic food, shelter, and medication shortages, technology was the last concern on everyone's minds — except Butcher's.

"I figured I could bring the tech community together, at least in Europe, to address this situation in the creative ways I know they are capable of," said Butcher, a TechCrunch editor-at-large. In September 2015, Butcher set up a Facebook group and a Twitter feed for Techfugees, a new movement to do exactly that.

The next day, it had 100 members on Facebook. The day after, 300. Today, it’s approaching 4,000 members. Within the first few months, the not-for-profit organization arranged conferences and hackathons, ways for the tech community to come together and start to think about how it could help. It soon attracted speakers from agencies like UNHCR, UNICEF, and the Red Cross. Tech companies came forward to sponsor the events to make them free for attendees.

London: the first step

The first conference was held in London in October 2015 and attracted over 700 people from London's tech scene. Many diverse ideas took flight — an Airbnb for refugees, a group messaging service for refugees without smartphones or internet, and apps to connect refugees to locals for advice and support. The most recent hackathon took place this weekend on the other side of the world in Melbourne, Australia.

"In some ways, you can see Techfugees events are opening the doors of tech support to NGOs and charities, and in the long term, we want these events to result in incubations of those projects at NGOs and deployment of technology on the ground, not just cool meetups," said Joséphine Goube, Techfugees chief operating officer.

Butcher and his team started by conducting research into what projects were out there as part of their TechfugeesLIVE day, where they did an eight-hour live stream of 48 interviews with technologists working on refugee-related tech. They also get feedback through a weekly newsletter about scalable technology related to refugees and refugee agencies, which goes out to over 1,000 subscribers.

The group's model is based on proximity and problem identification. Techfugees must stay close to people who have visibility into relevant issues. "That might be the big formal NGOs but it can also apply to the many informal groups and of course the refugees themselves," the website states. Stemming from such interactions, Butcher believes the group has identified ways tech can not only address problems related to cell phone connectivity and Wi-Fi access, but also education, health, and cultural integration into host countries.

Seeking volunteers for refugee initiatives

At Techfugees events, entrepreneurs have sketched out ideas for deploying Wi-Fi in the field and a location-based app for directing refugees to the nearest centers of help or aid. The meetups work to create new tools, but also help to source volunteers for startups involved with refugee initiatives, such as Migreat, an online legal assistant to the asylum application providing immigration advice. Refugees on Rails and Kizcode, two startups teaching refugees to code, came to look for people willing to found local chapters and teach coding.

Mujde Esin, founder of Kizcode, hails from Turkey. Growing up, she was deprived of education for years because of rudimentary educational infrastructure. After she learned to code, she got a scholarship and earned a master’s degree in the UK. "It changed my life," Esin said at the London TechFugees conference. "I would like to change other people’s lives and I believe coding is going to change many girls’ lives in underprivileged communities."

Refugees can have special privacy needsAs each hackathon goes by, it becomes apparent that there are no tailor-made solutions for the crisis. While Syrians might come armed with smartphones and working knowledge of English, some asylum seekers may arrive not knowing how to operate a cell phone or speak any language other than their native tongues.

On the other side of the world, countries are not experiencing similar volumes of refugees, nor do they have the same history of refugee influx. But the Australian chapter has pitched in by training hackers through webinars to understand the special needs of refugees, for example what it might mean in term of privacy settings on an app when trying to aid someone fleeing a repressive government.

Scaling solutions to the refugee crisis

As the size and scope of the organization expands, the team is working to create an open-sourced database that will track all projects for everyone to see. That way, existing ideas can be built upon and entrepreneurs can avoid duplication. The goal is improved coordination and efficiency across all sectors, be it delivering aid, sharing data, or facilitating emergency response. This is what tech is all about says Butcher: scaling of a solution.

As the organization continues to grow, Techfugees is looking to launch defined "working groups" out of local chapters. Each chapter will decide on an area of expertise in technology delivered to refugees: housing, integration, education. Eventually, the Techfugees founders want these events to result in the widespread deployment of technology on the ground, but they have to be careful. "You can't just deploy an Alpha or Beta. If you get it wrong, you don't just lose users. A faulty or badly thought out product could turn into a matter of life or death," says Butcher.