How to make apps that help Europe-bound Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees are the most tech-savvy migrants in history and developers are creating apps to help them – but high-tech solutions aren’t always best

Finding their way

Finding their way – IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images

TEXTING. That’s the innovative idea that took home the top prize at a hackathon to help refugees in Paris, France, last month.

The service, conceived after a weekend brainstorming at coding school Le Wagon, would send people on the move alerts in different languages about medical and legal aid, or how to find jobs in their new home. The project has reportedly been picked up by several French non-profits, including Action Emploi Réfugiés.

Such a low-tech solution may seem odd given that many of those leaving Syria have made the dangerous journey to Europe with a smartphone in hand – navigating the route to Germany via GPS, for example, or sharing tips on social media. But as well-meaning developers and aid agencies are finding, how people use technology is as important as the tech they carry with them – and what works best may not be what we expect.

“This is the first really big population movement of people who are technologically savvy,” says Jeff Wishnie, senior director of program technology at Mercy Corps. That has led to aid agencies coming up with new ways to help.

The Paris hackathon was hosted by Techfugees, an organisation set up to find ways for the tech community to assist refugees. Since kicking off in September, Techfugees has supported events in cities around the world, including London, New York, Oslo, Venice, Belgrade and Warsaw. It has given rise to a range of ideas for online services: CHIN, an app for locals to connect with refugees in need; special versions of services like LinkedIn and Airbnb; an app to figure out the direction of Mecca; and Refugees on Rails, a service that aims to give refugees an edge in the job market by teaching them to code.

Techfugees isn’t the only source of such services. Others are being developed independently, such as Gherbetna, an app providing information about settling in Turkey, and Kiron University, a Berlin effort to offer refugees free online college education.

While the intentions behind all these services are good, are they what refugees need? “There’s a lot of people in the tech volunteer movement building apps,” says Wishnie. “One thing nobody is doing is installing them.”

Some of those developing apps are rushing in without taking the time to understand the problems they want to address, says Richard Dent of the University of Cambridge, who heads the Refugee Futures Initiative, a newly formed partnership between several European universities. “If anyone is hoping that technology and data can offer a quick fix, then I’m sorry, but from my perspective that would be a bit too reckless,” he says.

Megan Price, executive director of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group in San Francisco, agrees. When people pitch her technological solutions to human rights problems, she wants to hear if they plan to study the issue before jumping in and trying to solve it. “If they don’t offer up that disclaimer early on, I get really sceptical,” she says.

The biggest problem is an assumption that everyone else uses smartphones in the same way as those developing the apps. But that isn’t the case. For example, access to the internet isn’t always reliable when travelling, so services that don’t work offline aren’t very useful to refugees. And some refugees carry feature phones – a more basic version of a smartphone – which if not taken into account could mean the service isn’t accessible to everyone. Making services available in multiple languages – Arabic, Farsi, Pashto and so on – is also important.

So Wishnie and his team have surveyed refugees to better understand how they use technology. They found a stark difference between refugees and Westerners. Westerners tend to think of their phones as portals to the internet, but refugees used “phones as phones”, he says – they mostly wanted to stay in touch with people they knew. “What we found is that people are in such a state of panic that they aren’t doing much else,” he says.

WhatsApp, the mobile messaging app, is most popular, followed by similar services like Viber and Facebook Messenger. One exception to the trend was MAPS.ME, an app that lets you download maps to look at offline.

“No one we talked to was using web search. Very few people we talked to used Facebook groups for information,” he says.

A separate study by a team at Pennsylvania State University, conducted at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, underscored the popularity of instant messaging services. People of all ages ranked it as the internet-based activity they were most interested in. When asked what they would like to do if better internet access were available, many said they would like to use those apps more.

Wishnie’s findings shaped how his team approached their own effort to build an online resource. Their website,, provides information about things like housing, medical services, family reunification and local rules regarding asylum.

At first, they thought about advertising the site through targeted Facebook or Google ads. When they realised refugees were unlikely to come across the ads, they instead simply made the site the default homepage for all their free Wi-Fi networks – making their online resource hard to miss.

But making services that refugees will actually be able to use isn’t the only concern. Dent points out that some of the apps collect data from refugees. “If you look at a few of them, the terms and conditions are no different than Facebook in terms of monetising the data,” he says.

Last year, Dent signed an open letter affirming ethical principles for research in big data, along with researchers from Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and elsewhere. He hopes the wider tech community – not least those making apps for refugees – will embrace such values.

The sentiment is shared by Price. “Especially with refugees, there are a lot of hard questions about how we keep this data secure and how we make sure it’s used for good purposes,” she says.

However, the initiatives that are proving most effective on the ground may sidestep these concerns. A team from Google recently visited Wishnie on the Greek island of Lesbos to pitch some potential projects. Wishnie was sceptical, until he heard their idea. They wanted to print stickers, he says. Local shops could use them to advertise free Wi-Fi or power cables – with a link to at the bottom.

Wishnie was delighted that the tech giant seemed to get it. “You need to tailor your work to refugees’ needs, not what’s cool and fun.”

Counting casualties

How many people have been killed in the Syrian crisis? That question was first put to Megan Price at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group in San Francisco in 2012 by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“It seems like a straightforward question,” says Price. “It’s certainly the fundamental starting point when you’re thinking about a conflict. Yet it is very difficult to answer.”

Seven different organisations – from the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria to the Syria Shuhada – had gathered data sets. But it wasn’t as simple as adding all the names together. Some databases recorded the same people, but one might include a middle name where the others didn’t, or spelled a name incorrectly. And only some of the databases included gender, age, occupation and location of death.

So Price’s team built a machine-learning algorithm to spot such inconsistencies and used this to provide revised figures to the UN. Their first report in 2013 identified 59,648 deceased individuals, fewer than the 147,349 recorded across the separate databases. In 2014, that had risen to 191,369; the databases recorded 318,910.

These numbers are an important step in getting a clearer picture of what’s happening in Syria and the UN says it will use them in future investigations. Still, they should be treated as a lower bound, says Price. “There are always going to be victims whose names we don’t know.”

This article appeared in print under the headline “Phoning in refugee aid”

Reprinted with permission from New Scientist, issue 3069 published 16 April 2016


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