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How Technology Volunteers Can Build Solutions for Refugees


Given the scale and profile of the current global refugee crisis, it’s no surprise that the technology community is increasingly exploring how technology can solve challenges faced by refugees and those involved in refugee response.

Refugee and humanitarian communities should welcome the enthusiasm of the tech community alike, as it is clear that new ideas and new ways of operating are very much needed. However, we know we can’t “app” our way out of this crisis, but there are ways to maximize the impact of tech volunteering.

The Technology Salon Amman asked its community “Where Can Technologists Volunteer for the Greatest Impact?” and the drivers of two initiatives joined the conversation, seeking to spark a community of technologists to develop solutions for refugees: Techfugees and the MIT Arab Enterprise Forum’s Innovate for Refugees Challenge.

Common Failures

The conversation started with a discussion of the gap between the humanitarian and technology community, and how tech seeking to address social problems commonly fail:

  • Failure to meet a need Many participants had tales to tell about tech initiatives that completely missed the mark in terms of what is relevant and important to refugees.
  • Targets a need in a way that is not useful Tech solutions may address a real need but fail to do it in a way that is useful—perhaps by relying on a platform or device that is not commonly in use by refugees, or even (as is surprisingly often the case) not being in the right language.
  • The problem of politics Some problems that appear to be technical are, in fact, political. Witness the numerous efforts in Jordan targeted at employment—when the primary problem is that refugees, until very recently, have not been allowed to work.
  • (Un) sustainability Some volunteer efforts are organized for a limited period of time, even sometimes for a weekend. Yet stand-alone projects will often need years continued tech support or adaptation, and may at some stage require funding. Some questioned whether there was a trade-off between the sustainability of a solution and the urgency of a need. It might be the case that a technology solution can meet a very immediate need, without needing a life beyond.

Some concrete ways to bring the tech and humanitarian communities closer together were also identified:

For the Technology community: Ask, engage, and listen

The humanitarian community adopts new ideas all the time, but also has a well-founded aversion to failure. Failed initiatives can actually do harm to vulnerable populations, either directly by inhibiting the delivery of basic services, or indirectly by raising expectations and then failing to deliver.

Tech developers understand failure as a routine part of doing business—but they should not expect the humanitarian community to do the same, or to experiment with unproven and risky ventures. Some ways of managing this tension:

  • Don’t ask organizations to test your product—ask them to help you develop it. Seek feedback from people in the field as early and often as you can.
  • Develop for impact, not uniqueness. Everyone wants to develop the next killer app, but in reality you might have more impact with modest but strategic goals. This ensures the “real world” can take advantage of what you have built. For example:
    • Humanitarians need fresh ideas. A proof of concept project can showcase “what’s possible”. In this instance, your goal is to get the people who can make your project thrive on board in the early stages of development by showing possibilities that have not been considered before.
    • Solve discrete problems in systems that are already being used. For example, MIT’s OpenCourseWare is not as developed for Arabic script as it is for Roman script. What do organizations seeking to provide Arabic language content need in OpenCourseWare that could maximize their work?
    • Seek simplicity. Find the quick wins with high impact before going for the unicorns.
  • Understand the social and political environment. Learn everything you can about the community you are building for, including the political circumstances people find themselves in.
  • Understand the technical environment. There are three interlinked technical ingredients of a successful tech project: infrastructure, hardware, and software. Understanding each should be at the heart of technology development. Most technologists at this Technology Salon said they work on software, while the humanitarians said that their barriers are more related to available infrastructure and hardware. Education technologies are a case in point. There are numerous education apps, but many refugees have limited electricity and internet. Software should be developed with these constraints in mind; and technologists should also consider developing hardware specifically for these contexts.

For the Humanitarian Community: be more open

In many (or even most) cases, the technology community has limited or no access the refugee population. This makes it difficult to design technology that can meet their needs. It is critical that technologists understand the opportunities and constraints that will make or break the success of their solution and the onus should be on the humanitarian community to provide the relevant information.

  • Define and communicate the needs and challenges that tech could support. Techfugees Basefugees platform provides a space for agencies and individuals to articulate what they need.
  • Detail the technical landscape in the geographical areas you work, covering infrastructure, and, to the extent possible, devices and platforms commonly in use. This spec sheet can be made publically available for use by developers.
  • Engage more with the technology community. Hackathons in Turkey and Lebanon have facilitated a dialogue between techies, humanitarians, and refugees. Humanitarian workers can also act as judges in some of the many, many technology awards globally. UNICEF and UNHCR are participating alongside venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in MIT Arab Enterprise Forum’s Innovate for Refugees competition.
  • Find and elevate tech champions in the refugee communities. While it may not be possible or entirely ethical for technologists to test out their products on refugees, there are thousands of refugees who understand technology development and may be quite happy to work with the international tech community.

This list is not comprehensive—as we in Jordan try and bring these communities closer, we welcome your thoughts! What successes and failures have you seen?

Written by Eva Kaplan and Yazeed Sheqem

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