Nurturing the Refugee Tech Ecosystem

Humans on the Move, is a new group bringing together viable strategies for managing the globe’s refugee problems through enterprise, creativity, and investment within the existing civil society, philanthropy, and business ecosystems. New and retooled technology solutions are a critical component, specifically technology that works under the inconceivable demands of people without countries, carrying a bag of possessions or less, using shared phones, often without reliable electricity, internet access, shelter or weather protection. Tools made in Western labs or hackathons are usually flops when they meet the brutal demands of refugee camps, no electricity or carrier access, sea crossings, border controls. The majority of the best solutions are being invented by those who need them. Humans on the Move is working to identify the actual viable solutions and supporting them via philanthropy, investments, technical support or whatever is the best way to nurture them most effectively.

Similar to business start-ups, the immediacy of now is often too pressing for solutions to come from top-down global agencies or corporations, but the best of them watch for what trickles up to them and then put them to use at a mass scale they can afford. Also similar to business start-ups, those closest to the target customer - usually the people who have walked alongside refugees or are refugees themselves - are making the most impressive products. Efforts from all supporting parties must be focused on what actually works, and not what seems exciting on a whiteboard or in a weatherproof office with constant power and fast internet. And marketplace solutions that are financially sustainable providing the service should be prioritized over grant-dependent solutions that go away when the grants are no longer available.

One of the more fascinating areas where technology is meeting the needs of the refugees in a genuinely impactful way is helping victims return to a level of normal. People are fleeing from war zones arrive to refugee camps with wounds that require more than a bandage and sutures. Refugee Open Wareproduces low-cost, 3D-printed prosthetics, working extensively with 3D MENA Social Innovation and National Syrian Project for Prosthetic Limbs to reach the refugees in Jordan. They have a blended organization with both charitable and for profit investment arms. The power of the solutions they are able to provide is exemplified in this film of a Syrian boy receiving a 3D-printed custom made prosthetic hand. Refugee Open Ware’s next goals are to build two fabrication labs in Jordan, one in Amman and another between the Irbid and Mafraq refugee camps. These organizations have an impact beyond their customers, for example, a Syrian refugee who voluntarily helped maintain the 3D-printers is now leading Arduino and DIY robotics classes in Germany. Another product made by Refugee Open Ware was a low-cost hand-based echolocation camera and haptic guidance device for a blind people to wear to be told via taps of the environment around around him/her, but we haven’t seen its success at scale.

Syrian refugee Asem Hasna and students at his class in Berlin

Syrian refugee Asem Hasna and students at his class in Berlin

One of the biggest, and yet to be solved problems is validating an individual’s identity as they transfer across international borders often without passports. A leapfrog solution has been deployed within Jordan by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who iris scan all new arrivals. This translates into far less paperwork and a durable identity that can move with the person that could eventually span the globe. That iris scan is also being used for a powerful secondary purpose. There are currently 23,000 Syrian refugee families that receive $127/mo from the UNHCR. Disbursals had been problematic before when done via cash (due to graft) and even after they were assigned bank accounts and ATM (due to card loss or selling of the card). Now, in coordination with the Cairo Amman Bank, families’ money is disbursed from special retina-scanning ATMs meaning the full amount is always received and withdrawn by the recipient family.

Iris scan of a syrian refugee at the Zaatari camp in Jordan. Pic by  Engadget

Iris scan of a syrian refugee at the Zaatari camp in Jordan. Pic by Engadget

At the recently closed Idomeni refugee camp in Greece one individual took the connectivity problem on his own shoulders. He built out a wifi network that supported 960 people at a time. Still too small to have met the full demand of the camps roughly 15,000’s residents, but enough for everyone to get key messages in and out every day, or full Internet for anyone that stays up late. It’s also independently powered to avoid being at the mercy of the camp’s power supply. And he did it all for 5,000 euros. But this solution while valiant worked just at a single place. What is the business solution to providing a net of access across entire regions?

Homescreen for  for people in German

Homescreen for for people in German

To meet humans’ on the move quenchless desire for information, Mercy Corp, the International Rescue Committee and Google built RefugeeInfo.eubased upon the simplistically brilliant open source project Crisis Info Hubthat uses Google Docs as content files for low-bandwidth websites. A RefugeeInfo user selects their current location and is shown up-to-date info for food and shelter options, asylum requests, legal aid, local resources and medical assistance. The site uses simple HTML and shows text and links to make page loading fast even under the worst connections. And all site content is kept up to date on the back end by support teams simply editing google docs. New language support can be added by simply translating existing docs into that language.

Another very low-bandwidth service was created by a group of Germans has become the Couch Surfing of refugee housing. Now running in 10 countries,Refugees Welcome, allows local residents with room to spare to offer it to people in transit. So far they’ve matched 811 families to shared flats. (It’s available in Canada but not the US). In the United States, there isEmergencyBnB, providing services for both refugees and victims of domestic abuse looking for a place to stay.

One caveat in the development and support of technology for refugees is the fact that these people are fleeing for their lives, literally. Considering their privacy and security in using applications and devices is paramount. Which means their might need to be new revenue models and considerations put into place to ensure solutions do not put individuals into more danger. But big solutions are out there as well and the smart companies should know that while humans on the move may not have money now but they’re all survivors and the customers and entrepreneurs of the future.

Humans on the Move will be organizing convening to take place within larger events focused on the refugee challenges the world is facing. If global warming trends remain the same it’s widely forecast for their to be even more large-scale involuntary migrations. We can’t see the future, but can we prepare to have the tools to solve the challenges that will continue to arise. If you are interested in supporting this further please contact us at Humans on the Move. The founders, Christine Mendonca and Lina Srivastava will be at the following September events if you want to speak in person: UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants; Ford Foundation Convergence; Donor’s Forum; Mentor Capital Network Annual Gathering.

Ted Rheingold