There isn’t always an app for that: How tech can better assist refugees

Alex Glennie and Meghan Benton at Nesta: “Refugees are natural innovators. Often armed with little more than a smartphone, they must be adaptable and inventive if they are to navigate unpredictable, dangerous environments and successfully establish themselves in a new country.

Take Mojahed Akil, a young Syrian computer science student whose involvement in street protests in Aleppo brought him to the attention – and torture chambers – of the regime. With the support of his family, Mojahed was able to move across the border to the relative safety of Gaziantep, a city in southwest Turkey. Yet once he was there, he found it very difficult to communicate with those around him (most of whom only spoke Turkish but not Arabic or English) and to access essential information about laws, regulations and local services.

To overcome these challenges, Mojahed used his software training to develop a free smartphone app and website for Syrians living in Turkey. The Gherbetna platform offers both information (for example, about job listings) and connections (through letting users ask for help from the app’s community of contributors). Since its launch in 2014, it is estimated that Gherbetna has been downloaded by more than 50,000 people.

Huge efforts, but mixed results

Over the last 18 months, an explosion of creativity and innovation from tech entrepreneurs has tried to make life better for refugees. A host of new tools and resources now exists to support refugees along every stage of their journey. Our new report for the Migration Policy Institute’s Transatlantic Council on Migration explores some of these tools trying to help refugees integrate, and examines how policymakers can support the best new initiatives.

Our report finds that the speed of this ‘digital humanitarianism’ has been a double-edged sword, with a huge amount of duplication in the sector and some tools failing to get off the ground. ‘Failing fast’ might be a badge of honour in Silicon Valley, but what are the risks if vulnerable refugees rely on an app that disappears from one day to the next?

For example, consider Migreat, a ‘skyscanner for migration’, which pivoted at the height of the refugee crisis to become an asylum information app. Its selling point was that it was obsessively updated by legal experts, so users could trust the information — and rely less on smugglers or word of mouth. At its peak, Migreat had two million users a month, but according to an interview with Josephine Goube (one of the cofounders of the initiative) funding challenges meant the platform had to fold. Its digital presence still exists, but is no longer being updated, a ghost of February 2016.

Perhaps an even greater challenge is that few of these apps were designed with refugees, so many do not meet their needs. Creating an app to help refugees navigate local services is a bit like putting a sticking plaster on a deep wound: it doesn’t solve the problem that most services, and especially digital services, are not attuned to refugee needs. Having multilingual, up-to-date and easy-to-navigate government websites might be more helpful.

A new ‘digital humanitarianism’…(More)”