Talking Tech for Refugees

February 26th, 2017

josephine-goube-smIn a recent Cities of Migration learning exchange, Joséphine Goube, Chief Executive Officer, Techfugees, interviewed Alan Vernon, Project Lead, Connectivity for Refugees, UNHCR, about how technology can empower local refugee communities.

We followed up with Joséphine to learn more about how technology is empowering refugee communities, what Techfugees is currently working on, and what NGOs can learn from Techfugees’ rapid rise and work in 25 countries.*

In our recent webinar [Online/Offline: How Technology Can Empower Local Refugee Communities], you spoke about how data security and the security of people are intimately connected in your work with refugees. What are some principles around privacy and personal security that need to be considered when refugees, NGOs, and the tech community come together to develop solutions?

Joséphine Goube: The reality is that refugees have been targets already, so they don’t easily give their data. I haven’t seen many refugees who are very open to sharing personal or private information. It’s a very Western cultural phenomenon to provide so much personal information online. Refugees seem to have a higher level of respect for privacy. NGOs are also very aware of privacy issues.

It’s the engineers and techies who are the most unaware, even though they know how to put security around data. People collect data they don’t really need in order to provide their services. There’s a need for a different mentality when approaching technology projects with vulnerable populations like refugees. That’s what Techfugees provides. You have to look for innovative ways to build your business model.

We’re trying to educate the engineering and tech world about the vulnerability of refugees. For the tech world, most business models rely on data, and selling data, because the actual product is the user. This is a bit of an issue. Users provide tonnes of data. When apps that service people are created, it’s done by collecting a lot of information on the daily lives of people. And that doesn’t work well when building tech for refugees. If your business model relies on selling the data of vulnerable people, you’re really putting them at risk.

So, we spend a lot of time explaining the basic principles we have, which are:

  • don’t collect data if you don’t need it to deliver the actual service
  • don’t base the core of your business model on data

We also let them know that there are different ways to store and ensure security of data that protects peoples’ identities. As well, who has access to the data is important, so having security protocols and practices around personal information is essential.

What core ideas do techies need to keep in mind when working on “solutions” related to migration and refugee flows in receiving/host communities?

JG: We [the tech community] don’t have the long term view or expertise on the ground with refugees. That’s what NGOs have. They have the expertise. We are eager to learn. So, we work in partnership with NGOs to create technology for them. For example, we’ve been talking with Refugee Council in London about creating an app to deliver information for newly resettled refugees.

We’re useful to Refugee Council, because we bring expertise they don’t have. But, they’re essential to the process. We could create technology without NGOs –but then we would fail! Because we wouldn’t be able to fully define the challenge and who the target user is, or what the long-term vision or use for the app would be.

When we work with NGOs, our process looks like this: We work to define the challenge. What’s the core of the problem? Who are the stakeholders, users? Then, break down that problem in simple terms, and outline the scope and tech limitations. We identify the right tech for that problem. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated. It really is about creating something that can be used and is useful, immediately, on the front line. We also looking for scale, where can tech be used to scale the solution? At the end of the day, we’re not using tech for tech. If someone comes with a challenge where technology can’t help provide a solution that can scale, what’s the point of technology?

Can you share any tips for NGOs planning to use technology to improve refugee circumstances in host communities?

JG: At the beginning, it was rare for the humanitarian sector to be interested in working with the tech community. They didn’t have enough techie knowledge and were afraid that techies were interested in replacing workers with technology. There was also a misunderstanding that techies thought they could solve a political crisis, which isn’t what was intended. We’ve always said that we want to support NGOs in their work, to help them optimize their impact.

Tips? Learn about data and what data can do for you. Be open to the possibilities. What’s really important for NGOs is to look at how to be transparent, open and develop a sharing culture. We work with less hierarchy, more of a network. It means that we can advance faster, as small decisions are made on the front line, and small errors can be fixed quickly, because we’re working in groups. When we fail, it’s not catastrophic, because our approach is iterative, always evaluating what’s working and not.

We start, and we iterate or pivot based on what we’re learning. You could say that we’re very “short termist.” But, when you have an emergency, it’s important to be able to create solutions for short-term progress and focus.

My advice to NGOs is to be curious. Don’t be afraid of us. We’re here very much to help. We need your feedback into our processes.

What advice do you have for NGOs who need to work techies?

JG: There are clear cultural differences between how a hierarchical NGO works and techies. For example, it’s important to be clear about the technical terms we use. What is a sprint? What is a hackathon? What do we mean when we “hack?” The way we talk is different, so we need to make sure we have someone who can speak both languages, a cultural interpreter of sorts. That’s a key role Techfugees plays. We speak both languages. We can explain and translate what each other means.

So, refining the language and understanding the timing on how things will work and roll out. NGOs don’t generally have a sense of how long even a small solution can take. What looks small and easy to do may take many days and hours of coding, for example.

It’s important to communicate effectively, to prepare the groundwork, and that takes time. Technology is not magic. It’s hard work. It can be magic when it scales, but it only scales when you’ve nailed down the user. The user has to understand how to use your tech.

Ninety-five percent of the time spent is about defining the challenge, defining what the core problem is and then breaking it down. Five percent is building.

Find out more about Techfugees and their current crowdfunding campaign.

* The interview has been edited and condensed.

About Joséphine Goube

Listed as one of the 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneur of 2016 by Forbes, Joséphine Goube is a hacktivist for migrants and refugees in Europe. As COO at London-based Techfugees, a non-profit coordinating the tech community’s answer to the refugee needs, Goube helps structure the organization in 25 countries and focus its activities on tech that makes the most impact for refugees and NGOs. As tech evangelist for a web-based recruitment platform, Yborder, Goube supports the mobility of software engineers within the borders of Europe.


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