ICTs for Displaced Populations: Designing digital tools for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

By Matthew Dressa

Source: jnylee on Pixabay

Current Refugee Crisis

By the end of 2019, there were nearly 79.5 million individuals displaced worldwide. Whether it be as a result of civil conflict, religious persecution, or natural disaster, displaced persons face a vast amount of challenges in their pursuit of safety and stability. Furthermore, the difficulties endured by displaced populations do not end when they flee their homes. When these individuals integrate into a host community, they face additional challenges,] such as cultural barriers, mistrust, and displacement trauma. Highlighted below is the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in helping individuals overcome obstacles in their daily lives.

The Role of ICTs

ICTs are playing an increasing role in displaced people’s migration. Specifically, ICTs can improve refugee and asylum seekers’ access to information about everyday resources. These resources include translation services, healthcare information for doctor visits, religious centers, or nearby grocery stores. Generally speaking, ICTs can help them get the things they need as they adapt to live in a new country. Specifically, evidence shows that mobile phone applications are widely used information management tools among displaced populations. Our goal, through a developing project partnered with the Cornell Weill Medical Center, the Cornell Department of Communication, and the Cornell Law school, has been to understand how we can leverage our knowledge of mobile applications and displaced populations to create an accessible, efficient, long term mobile application for this group. First, however, we must use the human centered design process to create a tailored solution for refugees and asylum seekers.

Human Centered Design Process

The human centered design (HCD) process is a cycle where researchers take a user group and attempt to address their challenges. In HCD, the first stage is to empathize with the user. After empathizing, researchers ideate, prototype a solution, test the prototype and evaluate the prototype. This is a cycle repeated consistently to ensure that the design solution is adjusted to the changing needs of users and their environments. Through this semester, we began the empathy stage by reviewing the literature. This has helped us get a better understanding of the experience of living as a refugee and the challenges they face in mobile information access.

Access and Literacy

With respect to refugee populations, Whatsapp is commonly used as both an information retrieval and social interaction tool. Understanding the current use of technology among asylum seekers and tailoring the mobile application accordingly ensures continued use of the resource. For example, WhatsApp uses a horizontal scroll. If an application is made, it should include a horizontal scroll and other elements that users are familiar with. Accessibility also goes in hand with literacy. Digital literacy is the ability for a person to, “find, evaluate, and compose clear information through writing and other media on various digital platforms”. Language literacy, such as reading and writing skills, is one component of digital literacy. As described in Syed & Sabie (2019), imagine you are in a foreign country and attempting to do an ATM bank transfer. This process can be very difficult for someone who does not speak the local language. In addition, in Syed & Sabie (2019), refugees had challenges in retrieving information regarding local systems, such as public transportation and banking. In short, accessibility and digital literacy considerations ensure the usability of the digital tool aligns well with the capabilities of the user.


As noted in several bodies of literature, trust is a necessary component in mobile applications for asylum seekers and refugees. When arriving in their host community, migrants can be mistrustful because of their reduced social capital, “networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively” (Oxford University Press (OUP), 2020). Trust is an important part of social capital because it contributes to relationship building, which is important for resource and information management, especially for newcomers. Furthermore, many migrants experience displacement trauma, reducing feelings of trust with people outside of one’s own community. One way to address potential mistrust is through the use of intermediaries or individuals who bridge the gap between migrants and the host-community members (Hsiao & Dillahunt, 2018). A second approach would be the use of institutions such as churches and NGOs to disseminate information to displaced populations. However, the main point is that strong, trustful social relationships between migrants and information providers should exist for an effective, well-utilized mobile application.


Similarly, displacement trauma can also diminish refugees’ sense of privacy, a result of their prior living environments. This makes refugees especially vulnerable when navigating for online resources. Specifically, Simko et al (2018) describe a multitude of risk factors when using the internet, such as password management, security question creation, and sensitive document storage. For example, some refugees in their study did not understand the bureaucratic system and the importance of keeping one’s own social security number private. Similarly, in some cultures disclosing certain information is not a norm. In Talhouk et al. (2017) for example, researchers found that some women had concerns about sharing images of themselves through Whatsapp for a health communication exercise. Therefore, the interface that will be designed for refugee information access, must provide users with feelings of privacy and security.

Existing Mobile Solutions

Below are assessments of the currently available information management applications for refugees. Both of these applications were included in this project because they provide refugees with important medical and legal information. Furthermore, these apps were assessed in accordance with standard UI and UX principles.


Screenshots of the Integreat interface

Integreat is a mobile application created for German refugees, asylum seekers, and other newcomers. In Integreat, users can acquire information regarding numerous categories such as healthcare, citizenship, or employment. After starting up the application, users are prompted to select a city to obtain information. Following this step, users are greeted with a home page and several boxed options. The boxed options lead to a list of tabs to explore. The pros of Integreat are that the organization’s logo is clearly marked on the home page, which accounts for the trust user experience element through visible affiliation. Visible affiliations are important because it ensures that the users are still getting information within the trusted application. In addition, the application uses a horizontal scroll following the standard for many mobile applications. A usability standard in mobile applications is important because it ensures that the interface is intuitive enough for the user to complete certain objectives they have on any application.


Screenshots of the HelloUSA interface

FindHello is a mobile application created by the non-profit, HelloUSA. The organization’s goal is to provide refugees with a centralized source of information. Upon startup of the app, the user can select a category, such as resettlement services, health information, or cultural centers. When the individual starts selecting a category, they are then taken to a page that displays all their options available for the given category. After clicking onto one organization, the user is then taken to an information page, which consists of the organization’s phone number, website, and address. One strength of FindHello is that the mobile application, like Integreat, is offered in multiple languages, which accounts for the literacy user experience consideration. One drawback, however, is that the application does not display the organization’s logo on all pages.


Creating digital, resource acquisition tools for refugees is important to incorporate newcomers into society. ICTs that help this vulnerable population manage their lives contribute to greater life outcomes financially, mentally, and physically. More work needs to be done within academia to understand the variation in attitudes and uses of technology between different subgroups of displaced populations. However, the research that has been conducted up to this point is promising. What we can learn from the existing bodies of work is that no voice should go unheard in the design process of new technologies.



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