The Refugee Crisis: How Coders, Apps, and Technology Provide Relief
31 Mar 2016
14 minute read
When my editor suggested I write an article about coding and refugees, I’ll be honest, I didn’t think it was going to be an easy post to write.
But it turns out I was wrong, very wrong. It also turns out that I needn’t have asked for payment in advance.
This is because the moment I started doing some research I quickly came across a wealth of evidence, research, and one of the best examples of pure altruism I’ve seen in a long time in the tech world.
You may or may not be aware of it, but coders, tech engineers and app designers are helping refugees from around the world every day...and they’re not doing it for profit. More than that, they’re making a real difference and a real positive impact on the lives of refugees worldwide.
Refugee Crisis? There's an App for That
If you have been unlucky enough to be caught up in a civil war between say a dictator on one side, ineffectual international intervention, and fear being at the mercy of religious extremists; or been caught in the middle of a warzone, and now attempt to survive by crossing a desert or an inhospitable sea on a rubber Band-Aid in an attempt to save you and your family’s lives; or paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of escaping to some untrustworthy and nefarious individuals, only to end up in a country where you don’t speak the language and face an uncertain future of prejudice, resentment and genuine repression for “coming over here and not making an effort”...
Then don’t panic, because there’s an app for that. No, seriously, there is. In fact, there are heaps of them! Pick one and get going.
A genuine revelation
Refugees can access apps that will help them save their lives, and it’s actually part of a growing trend worldwide.
To be honest, I should have known. I’ve covered other tech related innovations designed to help humans over the last few years, such as MS, Google and Facebook’s efforts to grant even the remotest parts of the world better internet. I’ve also been a champion of the Raspberry Pi, and even covered emergent renewable power in third world countries.
So, it should go without saying that there are also apps for refugees. Someone like you and me has built them...and the best news of all is that if you can code, you too possess the power to create applications for the benefit of humanity.
The curious thing (and also the wonderful thing) about how coding has helped refugees is the fact that much of it’s been carried out by small like-minded groups and individuals.
But, how exactly can technology and coding help refugees?
At its most basic level, merely having a phone with GPS and Google Maps installed has proved to be a lifesaver for refugees.
According to Amnesty International, the war in Syria alone has displaced over 4 million individuals -- nevermind the estimated 43 million (and growing) worldwide.
Unsurprisingly, there isn’t much of an organisational infrastructure for civilians wanting to flee war zones. Sheltering, feeding and providing essential healthcare is a logistical nightmare for NGOs and other organisations trying to help. But, by utilising data and analytical technology, some groups have deployed rather innovative mechanisms to try and make the difference.
And why wouldn’t it?
It was only last year that the chief information officer for the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) said that the “first thing people running the Za’atri [refugee] camp in Jordan ask for is not tents and blankets, but where they can charge their mobile phones.”
For a refugee, looking at cute pictures of kittens is one of the last things on their mind. Instead, the humble mobile phone is now seen as an integral part of a wide gamut of strategies currently worked on under the guide of the UN Innovation program.
It’s also an example of where big tech companies can make their presence felt. Microsoft has been working since 1999 to support UNHCR in its mandate to offer refugee assistance, by leveraging technology, specifically, with the proGres initiative.
Some volunteer Microsoft employees began ProGres back in 1999. Since then, ProGres has become the UN global registration system for refugees. By the end of 2010, proGres operated in more than 250 locations across 82 countries, and to date has provided assistance to nearly 5 million refugees.
Thanks to ProGres’ implementation of Iris scanning technology commonly used by U.S. banks, there’s no longer an administrative backlog of refugees waiting to be registered. As a concrete example, the UN has estimated that over 600,000 refugees currently reside in Jordan.
Keeping tabs on the number of refugees has proven more impactful than knowing each refugee’s name. According to Andrew Harper of the UN, it’s fundamentally changed the way the UN distributes aid to the estimated 2 million plus refugees both in Jordan and surrounding areas. The resulting data ensures that aid is implemented in a much more effective manner than ever before.
The Migrants' Files project takes a different approach, likely because it was designed with an alternative purpose in mind. It was launched in 2013 when a group of European journalists and researchers joined forces to quantify the deaths of immigrants seeking refuge in Europe, and identify the locations of these tragedies on maps. The Migrants’ Files involves the extended use of graphical information systems to plot data accurately on maps, and paints a different story to the one the media tells.
Another great example of technology and coding helping refugees is Refunite, another powerful service that helps people who have been displaced. Refunite’s tagline is: ‘Everyone has a right to know where their family is.’
Refunite is the story of two tech engineers, David and Christopher, who found that existent family tracing programs lacked collaborative technology. Their mission is to eradicate the fill-in forms that made information sharing between agencies, borders, and conflicts really ineffective.
The power of entrepreneurs, hackathons, and techfugees
As you can see, a handful of tech entrepreneurs and established big tech have done their parts in helping refugees worldwide. But, the primary players have done it on a volunteer or not for profit basis. With that said, you don’t need to join or be employed by an NGO or a humanitarian organisation to help. You don’t need to travel to effected areas to get involved either. All you need to be is a Techfugee.
The term ‘techfugee’ simply refers to people around the world who volunteer their time to aid today’s human crises. Techfugees are part of the global collective aspiring to use technology to help out refugees...and they’re not an isolated bunch either!
Techfugees.com facilitates this work. While doing their part by coming up with innovative solutions, techfugee.com also places humanitarian engineers and coders in NGO’s. The best part of all? Techfugee’s work seems entirely altruistic in nature.
Refugees and their brave new world
It’s about much more than helping refugees flee whatever card they've been dealt. There are also issues after the fact. It’s just one of those things. There’s an awful lot of news documenting refugees as they flee, but there’s not much information once they’ve arrived.
While their lives might no longer be in immediate danger from lethal persecution, there’s a hundred and one problems they continue to face in their new country. From language barriers to cultural problems, to downright lack of basic information, refugees have massive amounts of work cut out for them with too few resources to lean on for help.
To reiterate: Coders possess the power to provide relief for refugees.
In our current digital age, geographic location doesn’t matter in the way it would’ve only ten years ago. Unsurprisingly, many ideas for apps and software to assist newly arrived refugees come from individuals who were once refugees themselves.
As a general rule of thumb, the ability to program is akin to learning a universal language. Coding is transferable.
Refugees from countries like Syria, Libya, and Iraq are the latest in a long line of displaced people marching back through history. Over the last two years, Techfugee hackathons have been organised across the world, including our very own Australia.
Back in November 2015, more than 50 tech developers, along with 30 people who came to Australia as refugees, joined forces in a suburb of Sydney to create apps that would help recently arrived refugee families integrate more easily into Australian society and understand our cultural differences in an enlightened way.
Techfugee events involve much more than well-intentioned coders getting together and assuming they know how to create apps and software that will help refugees. Taking an Agile approach, participants collaborate directly with refugees. Refugees talk to developers one-on-one in small, direct conversations about the issues and problems they personally faced upon arrival.
Even part-time Coder Academy student, Anna Robson, applied her recent coding skills to build a fully functinal app for refugees. Not to mention, Anna met co-founder Nirary at the Sydney Techfugee Hackathon in November 2015. The two joined together to solve the problem of talented, educated, and experienced people seeking refuge in Australia struggling to gain local work experience in their new country. The solution? Refugee Intern: a digital platform connecting skilled refugees with companies offering internships.
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Of course, while most of the Techfugee apps are still in development, turnaround time has significantly reduced thanks to the collective effort of small localised groups of coders, such as the talented amongst us in Sydney.
Join the efforts
While there’s been heaps in the news lately about the fast-paced development of artificial intelligence, and the impending displacement of work by robots, Techfugees worldwide have continued to do their best to help refugees globally by doing what they do best: coding.
The most refreshing part of it all is that they’re not incentivised by profits. Everyone involved strives to make a real difference, and the positive impact of technology on refugees has become palpable worldwide.
Anyone who knows how to code can help. What are you waiting for? Start learning today with Coder Academy.
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