7 ways agile tech can help refugee crises
1. Be agile
The recent European refugee crisis saw catastrophic political failure in the EU. We neither prepared nor executed a rational and sensible response. It showed fundamental problems with the whole EU vision. At National level it was just as bad. The response was walls, fences, barbed wire and police. Government departments, even in places used to large numbers of refugees were overwhelmed. Beyond this has been the failure to adequately integrate past refugees leaving them marginalised and capable of horrific acts of terror born of resentment and revenge. We have not provided vocational education and jobs in enough numbers to integrate refugees, whether in the past or present. Our institutions are too large and inflexible, especially in education, to provide for the employment needs of so many people. We need to be far more agile.
Technology has the ability to decentralise, disintermediate and democratise knowledge and services. It has speed, scalability and saving money on its side. You can get directly to refugees, as well as allowing them to get to you. This is not to say that it is the only solution. That would be blinkered. But it is a useful tactic within an overall strategy. So let’s see how technology can be used to alleviate what is one of the great political problems of our age.
2. Be mobile
There was a furore when refugees were pictured with smartphones. How dare they ask for our help when they can afford such things? Yet this simply showed the gulf between perception and reality. The mobile phone is a lifeline in countries from which the refugees came. In the Middle East, a way of existing within a society that has rules about physical social contact; in Africa, the means by which one can get work, transfer money and keep in touch. A mobile phone is a lifeline for refugees. They are, after all, on the move – mobile.
That’s why we must focus on this device when we think of technology as a solution to many (not all) refugee problems. Whether it be biometrics, data collection, money, language and finding information. Mobile should be the device of choice when it comes to integration and fostering autonomy in refugees.
It’s not just the simple voice function. It’s bulk SMS, WhatsApp, map applications, cash provision, language translation – a swarm of useful functions. Beyond this consistent and useful data collection on mobile through structured interviews i.e. set questions, often multiple choice is also useful, to identify real needs
To this end we have useful initiatives, such as zero tariffs for key information and services, as well as connectivity movements such as the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter (HMCC), that tries to open channels to prepare and respond to humanitarian crises.
To deliver effective solutions to problems, you need to know the scale of the problem and authentic identification is essential. We have seen refugees remove skin from their fingers to evade fingerprinting but the bottom line here, is that identification is necessary, even more so since the Paris bombings. This is an area in which technology excels; fingerprints, retinal, iris, face recognition, voice recognition even vein recognition. A combination of these techniques is even better.
So far, so good. But the real problems have only just started. The first big need when refugees find their destination, is orientation. Where do they find services, legal, health, education, language classes and so on. It can be bewildering, even frightening, arriving in a strange city in a strange country, where you do not speak the language.
One of the best examples of an agile solution to this problem is in Berlin, where the refugees themselves have created a simple map, in English, Arabic and Farsi, with the location of key services. This is crowd-sourced and a great example of an agile project that empowers the refugees themselves, to help themselves, rather than the top-down approach.
Hackathons aim to get real results in a short time, focused on real and immediate needs. To get useable results there needs to be the quick and exact definition of ideas. These are then executed by mixed teams, with a variety of necessary skills, to lead to success.
When refugees arrive in great numbers, it creates the possibility of chaos and confusion. One hacked project that results in a solution to an immediate need was a number queuing system for LAGeSo (Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales) the first contact centre for refugees in Berlin.
Refugees, who themselves speak a variety of languages, are likely to find themselves in countries where they do not speak the language. Even the second language they do speak may not be the language they need in their new host country.
Intensive tutor-led classes are expensive, difficult to organise and competent teachers may be hard to find. One solution is to produce or reuse existing free online learning such as Duolingo and MOOCs.
Duolingo is free, with over 100 million users and teaches Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, German, Dutch, French, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and others….
The IELTS test (International English Language Testing System) is the world’s most popular English language test for global migration. Over 9,000 organisations worldwide accept it; universities, employers, immigration authorities and professional bodies. Last year over 2.2 million tests were completed. This MOOC, the largest ever, had more than 440,000 learners from over 150 counties enrolled.
Another good example is the British Council ‘s free “Exploring English: Language and Culture’ MOOC. It has had 326,000 enrolments to date.
6. Online learning
Youth unemployment is the one thing we want to avoid with refugees. The way to avoid future disenchantment is fruitful employment. Academic structures, timescales and current vocational options are not good enough. Single course entry points are not enough. If you arrive in October, it is bizarre to have to wait almost a year to enter a formal course. Their needs are much more immediate and dynamic. The academic, agricultural calendar is ridiculous and the rigid layers in the system, make it far too difficult to cope with outsiders.
The solution is clearly online courses or at least blended courses with large online components.
Unicef is developing a programme called the “Virtual School for Education in Crises” (or Sahabati – My Cloud – in Arabic), which will offer courses, assessments and certification in Arabic, English, Maths and science. In a study from the University of Geneva, 78% of refugees reported they would definitely do an online course – for all, this was their first experience of distance learning.
7. Vocational learning
The great problem many economies face is unemployed young men. The suburbs of our cities are filling up with young men who lose faith and look for a purpose in life beyond even life itself.