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Belgrade, Serbia

Mobile Solutions for Refugees on the Move

Techfugees Belgrade

October 25, 2016

Using “almost forgotten technology” to create ICT solutions for mobile phones that provide internet-free access to essential information for refugees

techfugees-belgrade In October 2015, an overwhelming numbers of migrants were making their way across Europe from Syria’s civil war in what’s been called the worst humanitarian crisis in fifty years.  TechCrunch Editor Mike Butcher recognized a challenge: Could the tech community contribute by creating solutions to help refugees?

The Techfugees start-up took off and spread quickly. With chapters in over 20 countries, and at least ten more in development, Techfugees aims to coordinate an international tech community response to the growing refugee crisis.

Keep it practical

Techfugees organizes conferences, workshops, hackathons and meetups of like-minded techies around the world. Its approach is ambitious but rooted in practical IT solutions to improve a refugee’s day-to-day life. Techfugees’ notion of what technology can do is not utopian. When they talk about solutions, they don’t mean solving the refugee crisis itself. They mean finding ideas, applications and practical approaches that can help refugees in specific circumstances: ICT for connection and safety en route, and for  integration and inclusion upon arrival.

The work is done in local chapters, usually cities in receiving or refugee host countries. Local tech innovators work with nonprofits, government and refugees to create solutions in five core areas:

  1. Infrastructure – connectivity and access to internet and technology for refugees.

  2. Education – leveraging technology to provide online/offline training and courses for refugees

  3. Identity – basic identification for refugees (an issue for those who flee with little time to gather documents) as well as recognition of their skills and expertise, key for integration

  4. Health – technology innovation for wide ranging and specific health needs of refugees

  5. Inclusion – the role technology can play in facilitating social, cultural and economic inclusion of refugees in daily life

Work directly with the people you want to help

Working with refugees directly is key. As Techfugees Belgrade puts it: “Belgrade is on the Balkan route, parks were flooded with refugees (thousands were passing through, daily) and the tech community wanted to offer some help. We kept one thing in front of our eyes at all times: The crisis is understood only by the ones involved in it.”

It’s a refugee-centric approach. In Belgrade, Techfugees focused on “real-tech, and to connect the solutions to all the real aspects: suffering while constantly being on the go.” Their solution? Building on an “almost forgotten technology,” the team is currently developing InfoHelp, a “fully offline, USSD communication project for refugees that works on any kind of a mobile phone- providing info without the need for the internet.”

As Techfugees Belgrade learned, echoed in a recent UNHCR report, infrastructure and collaboration are necessary for success. In Belgrade’s case, the largest national telecom operator came on board, offering free access to the technology needed for their solution.

It’s an approach that not only scales, but can be replicated in other countries. Techfugees Belgrade is spilling their ideas over borders. They’re working with Serbian innovators to replicate InfoHelp. They want to reach out to Greek innovators, and are talking with groups in Pakistan and Italy: “Our aim is to help countries where the influx of refugees is large, and smart ways of sharing information much needed.”

“Hacking the problem” – high stakes, high pressure collaboration

A hackathon brings teams of interested people together, usually over 2-3 days, to “work” a practical IT challenge, in this case to the kind of problems faced by refugees. The goal is to create apps and websites that might help solve small, or large, challenges. Refugees are part of the solution, playing a key role in the drive towards new ideas and strategies to deal with the problems they face.

In April 2016 the Techfugees Belgrade hackathon brought together tech developers with local refugee aid organizations and people from the refugee community itself. Having refugees represented in the  innovation process is essential,. At a minimum it underlines the sense of urgency for better information and connectivity. It also ensures that developers start from actual experiences and needs when crafting solutions. Six new ideas were developed at the Belgrade hackathon, a number of which were funded and immediately went into development.

Making connections

Techfugees hackathons do more than create new ideas. They bring new stakeholders to the table, including people whose work may not traditionally overlap. Bringing NGOs together with civic tech innovators can have an important impact on host communities.

Techfugees understands the importance of working with receiving communities. However, they also work with and support chapters at the heart of the refugee crisis, such as Techfugees Jordan (in 2014, Jordan had 2.7 million refugees, a third of their population). Being there, being part of those conversations is key (such as a live tech discussion with UNICEF in Lebanese refugee camp).

The Techfugee experience in Jordan provides an important example of how larger infrastructure and political issues can, and can not, be resolved by tech innovation. In August 2016, internet access was cut off in Jordanian refugee camps. Techfugees recognized that “internet access is not a technical issue but a highly sensitive and political issue.” Moving the conversation about connectivity up the ladder to policy-makers has huge potential to transform everything from safety to services in refugee communities.

Success

Realistic, low-tech solutions such as Techfugees Belgrade’s InfoHelp can be vital in helping people in times of crisis, wherever they are. The potential for Techfugee community innovations to be replicated and shared is central to the Techfugees mission.

Techfugees recently created, Basefugees, an online platform that matches tech innovators with NGOs to help meet their real-world challenges. It’s one of many ways that Techfugees works to ensure that refugees and their host communities collaborate for inclusion and prosperity.

Making it Work for You:

  • Be collaborative.
  • Everyone is an integration actor. Tap into what you might consider unlikely actors to see what appetite there is to work together. You may be surprised.
  • Be practical, but aspirational. Building for the hyper local likely means that your ideas and solutions will be useful elsewhere.
  • Focus on local issues, people and ideas. Social innovation that works on the ground is likely to scale elsewhere.
  • Involve your  “end user,” the refugee herself/himself. It’s something technology developers can teach the settlement and integration NGOs. A good idea is only a good idea if it works for the target audience. Build it not only with them in mind, but with them involved.


For this Good Idea contact:

Josephine Goube, Techfugees
London, UK,
josephine@techfugees.com
https://techfugees.com/


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