Call me a digital humanist dreamer, but I am not the only one

I have recently came back from a trip to Greece that aimed generally to understand the big and complex picture of the refugee and migrant crisis, and particularly the issues surrounding the needs of women which often are not taken in consideration by policy. It was a very intense experience at all levels but I am going to dissect it from the tech perspective. Some of the findings are not locale specific, this means that requirements and resources vary greatly depending if we consider the island of Lesvos or Athens, but these are mainly considerations that can be applied in general humanitarian aid operations.


Media portraits refugees as an undifferentiated mass, where we often see arrivals of desperate families on boats, angry youth that attempt to illegally cross wired borders and outbursts of brutality in refugee camps. We hardly associate the idea that refugees have an important relationship with technology. It is vital for them to reconnect with their families, find relevant aid information and use navigation in a foreign land. Technology is used to rebuild lives. There are, though, different patterns of usage when considering gender and generations. Primary custodian of the phone in a family is usually male. The gender gap in access to technology is real and there is a deep fantastic study on this which I recommend: GSMA’s Connected Women.

We technologists often draft utopias where technology solve problems at mighty scales. The altruistic movement that fuelled refugee-centred hackathons in many big European cities, gathering techies, NGOs, designers that lacked local context and cultural understanding of their beneficiaries was certainly inspiring but not enough.

First, we need to acknowledge that technology serves best when it is taken as a the part of the solution. We should be able to identify the boundaries and metrics of the problem and then understand where to apply technology efficiently. It is key to know which organisations are working in specific camps, approach them and gather their pain points. Is technology the best way to address the issue? Why is a certain service failing and how can we improve it? Reminder to self: technology is only a tool.

Lifejacket Graveyard — Island of Lesvos, Greece

Secondly, we need an ecosystem-wide approach to integrate services so we avoid duplication and fragmentation. Let’s be humble about this. Perhaps we think our fancy app is going to be more performant, but the resources are highly constrained and there is simply not enough capital to afford it. Let’s stop reinventing the wheel and start putting it, effectively, on the right place. What partners can we onboard to make our solution more sustainable? I recently came across a Peter Drucker quote: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” which can be a bit daunting and demotivating but the idea is that we could start doing things by having an open source, collaboration-first approach.

Somewhere, during the development phase, take account the aspects that are part of the best practices. Their importance is heightened in the refugee context such as security, battery and connectivity. Personal data, identity and traceability is a sensitive topic since when falling into the wrong hands can pose a real threat to vulnerable populations. Power is often scarce even thought there are several initiatives attempting to fill the gap, like this one in Kara Tepe camp, Lesvos — it is important that we keep in mind to design for low consumption. Connectivity correlates with battery consumption as well. But connectivity too has a critical role on access to communication and information. So it is necessary to balance the use of data when it is strictly demanded.

Now, let’s all stand up, leave our chairs and code editors. It is time to do a real life deploy. “What do you mean leave the house?”. Yes, we have to. User experience mantra: design for the users with the users. Test with the users. Test with those who will instruct the users. Technology that fails materialising into a tangible product often missed a clear understanding of how refugees use that particular technology in their daily lives. It is important to have feedback early on how can it be adopted on the ground. Partnering is essential on the deployment phase.


So, what types of technology are having impact and solving real stuff? Hard to say. Everything is fairly recent and there is no secret sauce to it. Several experiments are being attempted, and some of them are indeed successful, but we are new at this. As Mike Butcher, the editor of TechCrunch and creator of Techfugees found out, years of experiences in the tech sector don’t necessarily prepare app creators for the logistics of working in emergencies. Specific technologies are being applied to different problem sets. Mobile combined with blockchain are powering “digital identities” so beneficiaries can access services that were once denied such as e-cash, donations, social services. Drones are becoming part of the disaster assessment toolkits and explored as a method of delivering low-mass goods. E-vouchers with QR codes are being redeemed at pinpointed stores with receipts being sent back to NGOs that emitted them, sustaining a cashless system that is more secure, efficient and transparent. GeoTech is allowing us to map faster than ever the vast amounts of crowdsourced data that help refugees from navigating their journeys to finding services.

A lot is being tested. For technology to help us we need to increase collaboration and sharing information, despite the political issues within the humanitarian community. Technologists and humanitarians need to be open to have a conversation. More partnerships are necessary between the public and private sector as well. There are wicked issues behind the political structures in the refugee crisis. I believe in new possibilities that connect people around the world powered by the ever growing technology advancements and the skilled people willing to do grand things for humanity, apart from egos. Apart from unwelcoming political systems. Technology is not inherently good nor bad. It is up to us.

Do you have a smartphone that you don’t use anymore? Check GeeCycle.org.