Refugee Crisis? There's An App For That

Kyra Hanson
By Kyra Hanson Last edited 20 months ago
Refugee Crisis? There's An App For That
Photo: MeshPoint

The refugee crisis: while governments squabble over numbers, build fences and dismantle camps; while aid organisations negotiate war zones, security and logistical red-tape, there's an ever-growing community of tech enthusiasts who have taken things into their own hands.

Mike Butcher, one of the world's leading tech innovators, is the driving force behind Techfugees, a non-profit organisation established in London last year to co-ordinate the international tech industry's response to the refugee crisis.

Butcher certainly has the credentials for a project so ambitious. He's also editor of Tech Crunch, and was involved in the creation of what's now known as Silicon Roundabout. He advised Cameron on tech start-ups, served on the Mayor of London’s Digital Advisory Board, the 'Smart London' Board, and has been a Technology Ambassador for London.

Tech City, Silicon Roundabout, Old Street. Photo: Jack Torcello

Like most brilliant ideas, Techfugees began life in a London pub. It now has a global reach, with Hackathons taking place in Oslo, Warsaw, Sydney, Paris, New York and elsewhere.

Says Butcher, "the technology start-up community in London is very big now, and growing, so it was relatively easy to get people involved."

The mobile phone is at the core of many projects because Butcher says the first things people ask for after food and shelter are power and Wi-Fi.

Projects which came out of the London hackathon include MeshPoint, a rugged Wi-Fi access point that can be set up in any weather conditions; Migreat, a website to help refugees navigate the asylum application process; Geecycle, a website for recycling and donating mobile phones to refugees; and Refugees On Rails, a tool that teaches refugees to code.

Photo: MeshPoint

For many, the tiny body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey was the catalyst for change. Last September tens of thousands of people marched through London at a protest organised by Solidarity With Refugees.

A placard from the Solidarity with Refugees March in London. Photo: Andy Worthington (2015)

The point, says Butcher, is "to unite the traditional world of charities and NGOs with the new technology-driven world which is used to all those things."

Butcher was under no pretence that Techfugees was creating a magic bullet, yet he sees it as a way of translating that collective outpouring of grief into direct action.

Earlier this month, Butcher told Forbes "We want to promote refugees as an asset to the tech industry, not a burden on society."

There have been plaudits for Techfugees. Butcher's initiative has been compared to Sir Bob Geldof's coordination of Live Aid in 1985. But are we in danger of what technology writer Evgeny Morozov calls Solutionism — our blind faith that, given the right code, algorithms and robots, technology can solve all of mankind's problems?

In an interview with the Guardian Morozov said that "all solutions come with cost". Potential shortfalls of tech include issues of security and privacy. The EU caused controversy recently by asking tech firms to pitch tracking systems to help keep tabs on the flow of migrants.

Butcher says: "it's not as simple as throwing a snapchat into the ether and seeing if people respond.

"Even though an app is not necessarily a solution, you can deploy an app to a million people in the blink of an eye. You can’t deploy aid to people in the blink of an eye, it takes months of planning, and a lot of money."

Mike Butcher and fellow tech enthusiasts at the London Hackathon held in October 2015

But are refugees engaging with this technology?

A number of initiatives often cited as success stories are still only in the early stages of development. Butcher says the main issue right now is deployment: "deploying stuff on the ground is very hard because there's multiple agencies involved and there's almost certainly no internet access."

Perhaps surprisingly you don't need to have a tech background to get involved in Techfugees — you can join a Slack channel, the Facebook group or sign up to the newsletter. Its 4,000 or so members have a range of skills from marketing and design to hardcore engineering skills. Yet, for some this is a flaw in the Techfugee model.

With hackathons taking place all over the world, ideas get duplicated and you sometimes end up with hundreds of similar projects all at varying levels of completion. Butcher says Techfugees is "trying to highlight the best projects" but admits there's a lot they don't know about.

Shelley Taylor, CEO of Trellyz, an app and website creation platform and founder of the Refugee Aid App, which launched in London earlier this year refers to Techfugees as an "organising principle".

RefAid app being used in Idomeni, Greece. Photo: MattImages

Taylor thinks it has good intentions but says "I feel like it's taken on a life of its own. Everyone talking about tech solutions is creating a lot of noise and not a lot of solutions. If 5,000 ideas come out of it, there's only ever going to be a minority which are executed and are useful for the refugee crisis."

Taylor, originally from Palo Alto in California, witnessed the beginning of the internet and helped organisations such as Microsoft, Dell, Netscape, BT and M&S with their early websites and user experience. She describes attending a London hackathon as one of the most disappointing experiences: "It was a bunch of enthusiastic people who had no tech experience, coming up with completely crazy ideas — things that would probably take 20 years to implement."

This fits with a view of hackathons as 'vanity projects' producing dormant websites that have been built over the course of a weekend. It's what's known as the 'app graveyard', where ill-thought out tech solutions go to die.

Taylor built The Refugee Aid App one weekend in November because her business is a tech company "whereas," she says "if you're starting from scratch it would take six to nine months to build. Building tech solutions always takes two or three developers at a minimum, so those are salaries of a minimum of £80,000 a year."

After a month of talking to NGOs to get a "real sense of the issues" Taylor's app now has many large organisations on board including the British and Italian Red Cross and Save the Children. The platform and mobile app is live in the UK, Italy, and Greece, with plans to expand into Europe and eventually the Middle East.

The database collates information on the location of aid — food, shelter, legal aid, medical care, etc in various countries — useful for aid organisations and for refugees. It's the first ever platform to show all aid by organisation and type, making it possible to improve efficiency and decrease costs of aid delivery for all participating NGOs.

Techfugees, meanwhile, is an entirely voluntary community, sustained through donations and self-funding. But Taylor argues that what’s needed is funding conferences for solutions, because realistically, not many people are going to have the resources to self-fund something which is going to support five million refugees in Europe: "Who has that kind of money? Except Google?"

Taylor's advice is 'more coordination, less self-promotion': "When you think about it logically, how many tech start-ups could you need for a population whose basic needs are food, shelter, jobs and language courses?

"There's a lot of good things happening in the London tech scene but there's also a whole boys club here, if you’re not a guy under 30 your chances of being taking seriously are very slim. I don't know how many times I've had men speak down to me, and I'm like 'hello I’ve been in tech longer than you've been alive!"

The proportion of women in the tech sector is just 17% but in London there is a move to disrupt the male-dominated image of the tech industry.

Tottenham Hale's Ada college — named after Londoner Ada Lovelace, widely known as the world’s first computer programmer — aims to boost the number of women inventing apps, launching start-ups and writing code.

Kimi Lawrie at the Techfugees London hackathon back in October. Photo: Mike Butcher (2015)

It's something Kimi Lawrie and Han Pham experienced when they launched Empower Hack, which is 150 mostly-female volunteers working on solutions for female refugees specifically. Lawrie says "by earmarking solutions for women, a lot of men have been hesitant to get involved."

Their first hackathon in London focused on violence, health and education. As a result the group are working on Herstory in partnership with NGO Intaliqi, a safe online environment for refugee women to share their stories of gender based violence.

At the first Empower Hack hackathon speakers give presentations on the issues faced by women refugees. Photo: Will Edgecom (2015)

Lawrie explains that Hababy — a play on the Arabic Habibi, meaning my darling, an expression of love — is an app supporting pregnant refugee women by 'sharing information in a culturally aware context'. Here, one of their partners is the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

According to Lawrie the tech scene in London has been incredibly supportive of Empower Hack: "People understand how privileged we are to live in one of the most expensive, high tech cities in the world, and all they want to do is help. It's about channelling the complex infrastructure we have here into something meaningful and altruistic."

But, she states: "It’s not just about code, or creating apps, it's asking how tech can combine with a range of skillsets and services to facilitate solutions."

The group brainstormed solutions around the areas of Gender-based violence, Education and Employment and Health. Photo: Will Edgecom (2015)

Speaking from personal experience Pham explains: "When you’re a refugee you give up a lot, and when you settle down in a new country you're often not afforded the opportunity to be who you once were, especially professionally." So Empower Hack has teamed up with London based charity Breaking Barriers to connect registered refugees to meaningful work.  

"If anything the refugee crisis has made us look at ourselves, what we do and what we want to create in terms of the world we want to live in," Pham adds.

At the next hackathon, Empower Hack Health (taking place this weekend) they are hoping to provide a crèche so mothers can be involved. Lawrie says "Too often the tech scene is asked what it can do whereas the focus should be on what is needed."

Jon of Geecycle was among thousands who joined the Solidarity with Refugees march last September. Photo: Mauro Murgia (2015)

One of the reasons something like Refugees Welcome — a kind of Airbnb for refugees — has been a success is because non-tech are at the heart of the solution. What makes it impressive is the commitment of volunteers to try and match people with housing.

Another solution which came out of the Techfugees London Hackathon, but relies on the kindness of strangers rather than complicated technology, is Geecycle — a platform for donating smartphones to refugees.

UK residents own more than 76.8 million unused handsets according to research, with the average person replacing their phone every 18 months.

The technology-minded trio behind Geecycle, Jon Plackett, Will Cookson and Jim Hunt, have experience in start-ups and creating apps so there was a cross-over of skills. But rather than approaching NGOs, which they say can be a slow process, they partnered with Impossible — the website created by model Lily Cole to encourage people to share their time/skills and unwanted objects.

You can donate your old smart phone to a refugee through Geecycle

Says Plackett, "We wanted to do something we could get done that day so we got the website up and running in the spirit of Techfugees — which is just people saying 'right we’re going to do something ourselves'.

"We realised our understanding of the situation was going to be pretty limited, bearing in mind we had a day to comprehend it [but] the nature of Techfugees is you arrive and they've done some research for you."

Geecycle is after Smart phones specifically. Plackett says refugees "don’t want our old Nokia 3410s, they need phones with good battery and connection, and the ability to run Facebook". Once the phones are wiped and unlocked they are sent to the Greek island of Samos where they are distributed by volunteers.

The 'tech bit' of Geecycle is a simple code which can check if a website's visitors have a brand new phone. If so, a banner pops up asking if a refugee can have their old phone.

Says Plackett, "People in London understand that we have a multicultural society.  You can't walk around the tube without hearing people speak different languages. There's a concentration of skills here which makes it an ideal city for coming up with social solutions."

The UN estimates 60 million people globally are displaced and adds that on average a refugee spends 15 years in a camp setting. Photo taken in Calais: James Fisher

We don't berate artists for creating artwork which responds to the crisis or photographers for capturing it, so should we be so quick to judge when it comes to technology solutions? Anything that creates discussion and debate around the issue is surely a good thing.

Major NGOs recently signed a letter accusing European leaders of "lagging behind" in their response to the crisis. Ultimately something as complex as this can not be solved with the click of a mouse, or downloading an app, but while governments are struggling to cope, the tech community is at least doing its bit to ease the refugee's inevitable journey.

Inspired? Join a hackathon in London

The ladies behind Empower Hack are hosting a hackathon this weekend (8-10 April) at Newspeak House in Bethnal Green. Global EmpowerhackHEALTH invites techies, researchers and creatives for a weekend of brainstorming, collaboration and prototyping under the guidance of NGOs, academics and on-the-ground aid workers. £12, prebook

Also this weekend you can join a discussion about technology as a political movement at King's College London. Free, just turn up, 11am-12.30pm

Last Updated 11 April 2016