Applying User Centered Innovation to help Refugee’s

Last weekend was an amazing weekend. Together with an awesome team of colleagues from IBM CIC Benelux we participated in the Dutch Blockchain Hackathon. It was the biggest Blockchain Hackathon in the world, and it was hosted right here in Groningen. Over 50 teams spread over 5 tracks, totalling over 350 participants. And I’m thrilled to say that we won the Identity track! Today I wanted to talk about what we did, and what I learned along the way.

Our amazing team!

First off, Blockchain! For those of you not familiar with it, there is a 6 min video by DutchChain on Youtube that is very worth watching! It explains it way better then I ever could. The most known application of Blockchain is Bitcoin. However, it can be used for way more because at it’s core, blockchain is a shared and immutable ledger of transactions.

The Problem

We entered the Identity track at the hackathon, and decided we wanted to try and help refugee’s coming to Europe. We started off trying to find out as much as we could about the refugee and what issue’s they face. We found that identity is a big problem for them, as a lot of refugee’s coming to Europe never had identity documents, or have lost them along the way. This makes it very hard for them to prove their identity to governments, which in turn makes the process of getting refugee status extremely long or even impossible.

To make matters worse, during this process refugee’s are told nothing. They are given a bed and a small closet and are told to wait. Sometimes for up to 6 months. They are being interviewed multiple times without knowing what for, or what happens to their information. And logically, looking at the situation they came from, they have a very hard time trusting any government agency. Refugee’s are being treated as a number in a system, not as a person anymore. We felt this was simply wrong, and needed to change!

We looked at the basic problems the refugee’s where facing. Lack of control, lack of (status)information, facing a process that takes way to long. After a lot of brainstorming we found the solution! We where going to put the ownership of the information back in the hands of its rightfull owner: The refugee! And so we got to work!

The refugee decides who gets access to what data

The Solution

We designed a mobile application (simple prototype here) where refugee’s could upload information about themselves. Anything from official documents like passports / birth certificates to less obvious information like social media accounts. Anything that “proves” his idenity can be uploaded, and will be stored on the blockchain. This information is visible only to the owner of the profile, unless access is given to others. This access can be given to anybody on the blockchain. This means Goverment instances like Immigration Services, NGO’s like the Red Cross, or even relatives / friends. Control of the data is back with the refugee, and his data is safely secured by his biometric data, his fingerprints.

We also prototyped the Immigration Services side of the application to show how they can find the refugee, and see only the information they where given access to. Checking and verifying the data still lies with the government instance, but they now can only do that once. So if a passport is checked and verified, it doesnt need to happen again by the next government instance, saving a lot of time in the process.

This solution should solve all the problems mentioned before, giving refugee’s more control over information, and therefore also more input on status of their application. And since information is verified once, it should make the entire application process a lot quicker too. This will promote collaboration and shared responsibility between refugee and government. The refugee will no longer be a number in a system, but will be seen as a human being again.


Next Steps

This idea was loved by our track’s sponsor, the Dutch National Office for Identity Data, and they awarded us the win! This will hopefully allow us to get the support we need to make our idea become a reality. Looking back at the weekend, it was an amazing experience to see this idea become reality in only 48 hours. We are definately planning on taking this further, hopefully being able to help thousands of refugee’s in the future by taking control back of their identity. We have already gotten the chance to present our idea at SXSW in Austin, and at a Blockchain event hosted by the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. Lots more to come!

For me it reinforced the knowledge I already had, if you put the needs of the users central in your application, great outcomes follow. We where able to talk to actual refugee’s, people from government agencies and the Red Cross. All of this helped us get a deep understanding of the end-users and the problem they face, resulting in a solution that gives power back to the refugee.

PS: Also congrats to the other IBM Client Innovation Center Benelux team for winning the International Trade and Entrepreneurship Track!

Team Zissou winning too!