Refugees in Europe and the Middle East are showing there is an on-going and increasing need for more fluid and mobile information access. This is an emergency where people may not stay in one place to await help from ‘official’ aid agencies, but will move according to information received from diverse sources. The people are weighing up what they hear and making judgements according to their needs and who they trust. Around that scenario, The Techfugees conferences and hackathons have emerged. The "tech community response to the European refugee crisis" has brought together talents across digital sectors, involving NGOs, government bodies and the private sector. Andrew Ford Lyons, a web technologist with Internews in London, attended the last conference in London earlier on in December and contributed this for the CDAC Network.
A ‘must have’ item common amongst Syrians and most other migrants is the mobile phone. When they meet aid providers the first questions are often is there Wi-Fi access? And can I charge my mobile?
Whatever answer is given helps to make the decision about what to do next. Move on rapidly, or stay. Because a priority will be to contact friends and family who may be somewhere ahead of them, access a map of the local area, research where food or medical services may be, and so on. They need that access to get on with what they see as their priorities.
So how to deliver this information to people needing it in different places and times and in different languages? Techfugees was packed with solutions that are already being used,, and some that were still in the concept phase. Many of them are the product of work in refugee camps in Calais, and in Lesvos where Internews' Information Aid research and projects took form (see https://medium.com/local-voices-global-change/information-is-aid-3f56585b5553#.ogb678pdk ). What was discovered there by ourselves, and others involved in Techfugees initiatives, is that solutions must have a mix of high-tech and low-tech elements. Websites and mobile apps are great, but they need to be mixed with physical sign-posting and support systems. Here's some of the developments discussed at the Techfugees conference.
Mobile Apps and Mobile-responsive websites: Projects like the Refugee Aid App, The Refugees Map, and Google's Hub Info are attempting to create one-stop-shops for refugees arriving in specific locations, to find all the things they may need most immediately. Others are focusing on specific needs. MyRefuge.World is one of a few projects aiming to match refugees needing a place to stay with people who have an extra room to offer. Doctors of the World's Clinic Finder mobile site uses geo-location to tell you where the closest medical clinics are based on your needs.
The physical needs of digital: Websites and mobile apps don't help much if you don't have an internet connection or mobile signal, and/or do have a dead battery. At the Techfugees conference, we heard about Meshpoint Wifi hotspot devices, designed to withstand an outdoor environment, and Vodafone's Instant Classrooms and mobile charger and WiFi hotspots for refugee camps, along with The World Wide Tribe's "WiFi for the Jungle" project in Calais.
Problems however remain around implementing these, and other solutions, as they involve making their intended users aware of them. These issues resurfaced during various presentations and so, ironically, high tech projects still rely on the offline world of signs, banners, and word of mouth.
Andrew Ford Lyons is Web Technologist at Internews in London.