Joséphine Goube Brings Tech to Refugees

The Forrest Four-Cast: February 27, 2018

The Opening Speaker for SXSW 2018 is Joséphine Goube from Paris, who has served as the CEO of Techfugees since November 2016. This non-profit group coordinates the international tech community’s response to the needs of refugees — it exists to empower the displaced with technology. A 2011 graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Goube will present “Let’s Tech Down the Borders” on Friday, March 9 at 11:00 am in Ballroom D in the Austin Convention Center. She is pictured above (in the white blouse) during Techfugees’ second hackathon at the Zinc Incubator at King Hussein’s Business Park in Amman, Jordan.

Many people in the United States don’t understand the refugee crisis in Europe. Can you give us a little more context on this. How does the crisis impact (positively or negatively) residents on an everyday basis?
I think it is important to call out that what has been labeled as a refugee crisis is in fact a term hiding a profound political crisis. Yes, the number of refugees coming to Europe in 2015 was double the number of refugees that came at the peak of the war in ex-Yugoslavia. However, in relative terms it represents only 0.15% of the population of the overall EU. Compared to Lebanon, where Syrian refugees represent more than 25% of its population, it is fair to say that the EU needs to stop the dramatic narrative of “invasion.” There is not such a thing happening — but there is a complete mess in terms of logistics and completely inadequate policies to welcome these refugees. Paradoxically, if Europe wants to keep being a strong geopolitical entity it needs more migrants and it needs them now. Europeans are not making enough babies and its population is aging. This said, I understand that people are scared. The numbers have hit records high (65 million people across the world) and it is certainly a challenge for governments to have to process such level of applications as well as prepare Europeans to integrate populations at a time of slow economic growth and a general weakening of the welfare state protections. However the reality is that higher migration flows are a structural change that climate change will only accelerate and for which we need to get ready to manage and plan for now.

Can you give us a quick overview of the kind of work that you are doing at Techfugees. What exactly is the mission of your organization? How many people work there?
Techfugees exists to empower displaced people with technology. It was Mike Butcher who coined the term Techfugees in September 2015 when he saw the picture of Baby Aylan on the beach. At the time, we saw many refugees using smartphones as lifelines and so Mike posted on a Facebook a call to all technologists to do something to help them using mobile tech. We quickly decided that our mission was to coordinate the international tech community to respond to the refugee situations; to give the international tech community a platform to provide useful and appropriate tools to vulnerable populations. That’s what we still do today, two years and a half later. Right now, we are a team of 5 people full time and 9 others part-time who rely heavily on more than 112 volunteers in 25 cities around the world representing us.

How and when did you first become involved in the organization?
When Mike made the call online about Techfugees, I was working at Migreat, a startup that provided user-friendly personalized visa and settlement information for migrants in Europe. Mike’s call echoed a lot of what I was working on: how do you use tech to empower the migrants and how do you provide easy and simple information on complex matters to vulnerable populations. When I arrived at the first Techfugees hackathon in London which brought 300 people from Tech CEOs, engineers, refugees and NGOs — blimey! — I was so inspired by how Mike had managed to take a topic that’s labelled as a “crisis” and transformed it into a powerful and positive call to action. I immediately asked him if I could help do a second event. A year and 15+ hackathons later, I am now heading the organization as its CEO.

Tell us some of Techfugees biggest success stories to date.
In two years, we have been able to turn this enthusiasm into a network of 25 Techfugees chapters and inspire 18,000 techies across the world to join the movement and be educated around refugee tech. We truly have a community now for which we advocate and support in creating new projects. Together, we have organised 45+ hackathons that resulted in more than 50+ innovative projects being incubated. Lastly and most importantly, from the 900+ refugees and displaced people that participated, we have anecdotal evidence that the majority of them found an internship or job after our events. But, all these are just numbers. Instead, let me illustrate our success with one of my favourite example: the Refuhelp startup team, a cohort of 7 refugees that met each other at our first hackathon in Paris and thereafter learned to code. They came back to the second hack, had a sleepless 48 hours and (exhausted but determined) pitched a prototype of a web-platform to help refugees in France get access to essential information using pictogrammes. They won, got incubated in one of the leading civic tech incubator in Paris and now identify themselves as entrepreneurs — not refugees anymore. Their story shows that refugees have talent and entrepreneurial drive that if tapped into the right way can unleash innovation and economic growth for all.

What does Techfugees need most to take the next step in its growth and evolution?
We need more funds from bigger actors to be able to cope with the high demand for our events, scale our programmes and keep being innovative by developing new pilots to support refugees’ empowerment. If we had access to larger sums of money, we’d be able to scale faster our impact and also get a solid team. So far, we have been lucky to receive donations from the tech community CEOs, VCs and refugees themselves as well as sponsorship from corporates like Schibsted, the Open Society Foundation and Expedia and we need more people and organisations like these: people that are ready to finance innovation for and WITH the refugees on sustainable terms. We know it is a matter of time before we get to bigger pockets, but for g** sake, refugees can’t wait!

At SXSW 2017, US Senator Cory Booker talked about the power of love in his Opening Remarks. Can you give us a preview of what you will talk about for your Opening Remarks at 11:00 am on Friday, March 9 in Ballroom D?
I don’t want to spoil the surprise. But let’s just say that I will speak about a topic that my President and yours disagree on, with a subtle French accent.

Paris is home base for you. We have heard a lot about the impact of incubators such as Station F. Please tell us more about how the startup / tech ecosystem is evolving there.
France and its capital Paris is rarely associated with entrepreneurship, business and innovation in a foreigner’s mind. Yet things have changed so much in recent years: the capital now leads Europe for the number of venture-capital funding rounds and it has seen a continuous growth of fundraising deals made each year with last year topping at +45% . The largest startup campus in the world, Station F, is home for more than 3000 entrepreneurs and 26 incubator programs in the heart of Paris. It was launched last year by the newly elected President Macron as a symbol of the new generation of entrepreneurs in France. This domestic momentum has a name: “French Tech.” Every startup rallies around this emblematic moniker now and there is even a visa for non-French that would be excited to join us here: the French tech ticket. After my six years in London and two years on the road with refugees, I am excited to settle back in Paris right now.

What tech innovation are you most excited about at present?
Bluetooth 5.0 — it allows to communicate and connect devices at further distances and exchange bigger data packs. A lot of humanitarian operations could benefit from equipping their devices with it, or using IoT that’ equipped with it. Local services in poor or developing countries could benefit from using it instead of using costly Internet connections and broadband infrastructures. Bluetooth has also a major advantage to be safer via automatic encryption and so cut off some of the risk of interception of private communications. That is vital in a war-related refugee situation, where you have people trying to escape from death.

What tech innovation are you least excited about at present? In other words, tell us what you think is over-rated?
I am interested in blockchain for good but I have little hope that it will “revolutionise” the life of refugees tomorrow. At best it will revolutionise the back-end systems, like the delivering of cash to refugees — which is something already piloted by the World Food Programme in Jordan and AID:Tech startup as an example. There is a serious technological challenge of getting the blockchain to deliver on its potential. It will take years to get there and I am delighted to see heavy investment is being made to rush the discovery and development process, and it is awesome to see the UN agencies rushing in to explore. But there again, I think the social impact of blockchain is far from being certain unless we get a massive movement to invest in blockchain for social good right now. If you are reading these lines, and are inspired to take action, then please join our Facebook group

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.