In the loop

Can tech entrepreneurs help reboot how we respond to a refugee crisis?

As the European refugee crisis reached fever pitch in 2015, Shelley Taylor, founder and CEO of app developer Trellyz, had an idea. Why not use her team’s expertise to link refugees to shelter, sustenance and other critical services? 

The result was the Refugee Aid app – or RefAid for short. Created over the course of a weekend in early 2016, RefAid uses geolocation and real-time data to show migrants, refugees and aid workers up-to-date maps of the nearest service points, filtered by category. Some meet simple short-term needs – such as water or blankets – while others cater to the long-term demands of a life lived in limbo: legal support, medical aid, and access to education.

“It is meant to cover many years of the refugee life cycle,” explains Taylor, a Silicon Valley veteran.

Two years on, RefAid is active in 14 countries, features more than 400 aid organisations and charities – ranging from the British Red Cross to Save the Children – and continues to attract up to 50 more a month. Nonprofits that sign up populate the app with data about their services and locations, information that is then promoted in two languages to refugees and migrants using the platform.

Alongside helping users to find their footing, RefAid also acts as a single source for aid agencies to see which services exist, or are missing, in each location.

“For the first time [agencies] have a way to see what else is going on near them, with the benefit that now they are no longer all doing the same thing in the same place,” says Taylor, who funded the project with a mix of her own money, company assets and donations. 

“At the height of the migrant crisis in Europe, the tech community really stepped up”A decade ago, RefAid would have been an outlier. Now it is a sign of a wider trend that has seen technology firms begin to disrupt the traditional crisis response models of the aid sector. Beginning in 2015, the industry has seen an almost spontaneous response to the refugee crisis, with an army of techies rallying to find new and novel ways to help people in transit.

What emerged, by way of a flurry of hackathons and other hub-powered events, were fledgling tools and models to help tend to the needs of those crossing borders. From groups like Techfugees, a social enterprise that aims to steer the global tech sector’s response to the crisis, to established digital players such as Trellyz.

“It was a huge, welcome surprise when, at the height of the migrant crisis in Europe, the tech community really stepped up,” says Meghan Benton, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.

While the digital response hasn’t pushed aside traditional ways of delivering aid, it is helping to bring something new to the way over-stretched humanitarian agencies operate.  “The real potential is in working more closely together and thinking about how tech can be more disruptive and solve problems at scale,” she adds.

The recent migrant crisis has been unusual in more than just its size. For the first time, smartphones have become compasses: a way to find safe passage. Maps and GPS help find open border points, while apps translate foreign languages, wire money, or help to navigate government bureaucracies in a new country.

Each WhatsApp message or Facebook login is a lifeline to loved ones, one that comes without the burden of expensive call rates. For relief agencies, faced with a digital migration, mobile phone charging and wi-fi points have become as essential as aid packages for those they help.

For tech giants, familiar with digital delivery on a vast scale, this is an opportunity to lend their clout to the crisis response. Homesharing site Airbnb earlier this year launched Open Homes, a platform that allows hosts to offer free temporary housing to displaced people. Relief agencies can use the site to search for accommodation on behalf of refugees or those made homeless by natural disasters or other emergencies.

In June, there were 6,000 listings on the platform, and Airbnb aims to provide free, short-term housing to 100,000 over five years.

Professional networking site LinkedIn first piloted its ‘Welcome Talent’ microsite in February 2016. Available in English and Arabic, it connected refugees in Sweden with 50 local companies offering internships and jobs. By October it was expanding to Canada, and by January, the US, where it partnered with aid agency the International Rescue Committee. In June, LinkedIn said the programme had helped nearly 4,000 refugees to date.

Search giant Google has taken a hearts and minds approach. In May, it joined with the UN’s refugee agency to launch Searching for Syria, an immersive website that allows users to explore some of the details behind the five most searched questions about Syria and the Syrian people. The site offers a haunting insight into the conflict and resulting diaspora, using videos, photography, satellite imagery and refugee stories to bring the crisis to life.

The quest for tech solutions goes beyond helping those in transit, and into helping migrants forge a new life. Many – particularly refugees – have missing documentation; the result of fleeing without birth certificates, ID cards or degree certificates. Without papers to prove their identity, securing a bank account, home, or the right to work or study becomes a vast, administrative headache.

BanQu is one app taking aim at this issue. A private blockchain platform, it allows people to record transactions, health and education records, and credit histories to build up a personal digital identity. It is the brainchild of Ashish Gadnis, a tech entrepreneur and former US Aid country CEO for the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We are able to connect displaced people to the basic things that are happening to them,” says Gadnis. “If they receive remittance money, aid or micro finance, BanQu allows the identity of the refugee to capture the transaction information.”

Launched in late 2016, BanQu has some 5,000 identities registered and is growing steadily in locations such as East Africa and Jordan, where it has partnered with digital payments company Boloro to help refugees receive and spend funds transferred from NGOs. While it is free for the poor, the displaced and refugees, the same platform turns a profit via its commercial arm, which in turn keeps its pro bono services in operation.

Building trust has been an important part of gaining users so Gadnis and his team have worked closely with existing aid agencies. “Whether it’s a co-operative or an NGO, we enable the platform so they can now capture the data and users can then register with us through their trust network,” he says.

From an employment perspective coding schools have produced impactful, if limited, outcomes, helping to propel refugees into lucrative work. For example ReBootKamp (RBK) was established in Amman, Jordan to train and deploy software engineers over an 18-week course.

“It occurred to me to use code bootcamps to translate the vast amount of intellectual potential in the refugee environment, into intellectual capital,” explains Hugh Bosely, founder of RBK.

After a year of partnership-building between Silicon Valley, the Jordanian government and NGOs, the first round of RBK kicked off in May 2016, aiming to produce eight engineers. It generated 17. Now into its third round, the programme received more than 2,000 applications for some 40 places.

“It’s a drop in the bucket, but that said the technology is very scalable,” says Bosely, who is hunting for donors to help scale RBK into other parts of Jordan and eventually Turkey and Palestine.

Education is another flashpoint. Of the 22.5 million refugees worldwide seeking asylum, hundreds of thousands are young students whose university years have shuddered to a halt.

Reenrollment is fraught with barriers both physical and administrative: paperwork may be lost or missing, while visa and legal constraints can slow the process to a crawl. Few refugees have the money to meet tuition fees, while foreign students may lack the fluency to attend English-language universities.

Kiron Open Higher Education, founded in Germany in 2015, hopes to come to their rescue.  The Berlin-based startup aims to offer refugees internationally recognised degrees, for free, without the need for complete paperwork. Its model uses digital learning to offer students two-year online courses in subjects ranging from engineering, to computer studies, to business and management. Students then have the option to transfer to a partner university and finish their studies on campus. 

Curricula is shaped by top universities such as Harvard and Yale, while leading digital learning providers such as EdX and Coursera offer the courses on their existing platforms.

“A refugee student can start studying with us online right away, they don't have to pay anything and they don't need documentation,” explains Hila Azadzoy, head of strategic partnerships and part of Kiron’s founding team. “They get their academic credentials recognised for everything they have done with us, then go on to the partner university and finish with a fully accredited bachelor’s degree.”

So far Kiron is working in four countries where it has registered some 5,000 students, 2,700 of which are currently active. Nearly half of these students originate from Syria where, prior to the war, 25 per cent of 18 to 22 year olds were pursuing higher education. Afghanistan and Somalia contribute 12 per cent and 5 per cent of the student body respectively.

Kiron is partnered with 41 institutions globally and has been funded through a mix of private and public money, including via one of Germany’s most successful social start-up crowdfunding campaigns.

“We are focusing on specific countries because we have limited resources,” says Azadzoy, whose own father migrated to Germany in the 1970s. “While the platform is highly scalable, the support services we are offering are a bit less so. To make sure every student gets the guidance they need, we’re now focusing these support services in Germany, Turkey, France and Jordan.”

Technology isn’t a panacea. But digital connectivity has the potential to shake up the traditional delivery of aid, using the innovation, capacity and scale the tech sector has become known for. Better use of data, shaped by closer tie-ups between NGOs and tech providers, has the potential to generate real impact for refugees, migrants and the displaced. As migration becomes digital, so too must the aid response to it.