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Benetech and Yahoo for Good Discuss Technology’s Role in the Refugee Crisis

By posted in Code Alliance (previously SocialCoding4Good) on November 23, 2015 at 9:58am

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There are now more than 4,280,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The magnitude and geographical spread, though, are not the only factors that make the Syrian refugee crisis unique. It is also the fact that, compared with other recent humanitarian missions, the Syrian refugee aid effort is noticeably digital. From registration with biometric verification to mobile communications and to smart device medicine delivery, the Syrian aid effort exemplifies technology’s potential to transform the humanitarian process. Creating technology solutions that benefit refugees was also the topic of a recent “Hack Lunch” at Yahoo, in which I had the opportunity to represent Benetech and speak to a group of engineers and technologists about social impact technology.

As a pioneer in the field of digital social entrepreneurship, Benetech has been on the frontlines of applying technology to address the needs of underserved populations. In fact, our SocialCoding4Good initiative is all about increasing the engagement of the technology sector with humanitarian, open source projects. In my role as SocialCoding4Good Developer Community Manager, I spend much of my time designing processes and practices that support the participation of the growing community of technical contributors in these projects.

That’s why I was delighted when Grace Chung, Yahoo Manager of Corporate Programs, invited me to speak to a group of the company’s engineers and technologists at their November 3rd  “Hack Lunch,”  a brainstorming session for quarterly hackathons that Yahoo regularly organizes. Grace explained that, in the light of the news coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis,  many Yahoo employees had asked what the company was doing to make a difference. It became apparent that there was enough interest  in the idea of a Hack Day for Refugees.

Three speakers seated in a corporate conference room.

Susan McPherson (left), Nwe Oo , and I at Yahoo’s Hack Lunch, November 3, 2015

Of course, I’m well aware that technology is no panacea for addressing  the world’s complex problems, including the Syrian refugee crisis. Yet, given that my responsibility is to help bridge gaps between the corporate high-tech and social impact communities, I do think that there are plenty of examples of technology serving as a catalyst for real, positive social change.

In fact, during the Hack Lunch, Grace showed a brief news clip that explained how smartphones have allowed many displaced Syrians to find out which border crossings were open, what agencies to contact when they reach safety, and where to go for help. Smartphones have also enabled them to stay connected to relatives and friends while making an extremely difficult journey across land and sea. The ability to access realtime information while in transit has become crucial to those faced with displacement  and is one of the ways in which  technology can help their plight.

Having personally tutored a group of Burmese refugees in Oakland last year, I’ve seen firsthand how important it is for non-English speakers to be able to understand and work with computers and smartphones. My colleague in this work was Nwe Oo — a Burmese refugee herself and a prominent advocate for refugee issues for the Rakhine community. Nwe’s accomplishments are vast and include working with the United Nations and UN Women to advocate for social causes, as well as being a social entrepreneur and founder of her own business, Weaving Through Change, in addition to being the proud mother of three boys. I was honored to bring Nwe with me to Yahoo to talk about refugee needs after resettlement.

Olivia Khalili, who runs the Yahoo for Good team, kindly treated us to lunch, where we met the third speaker on our panel that day:  Susan McPherson, an expert in issues at the intersection of brands and social good and a Board Member at USA for UNHCR. I had the distinct responsibility of opening the panel by introducing attendees to SocialCoding4Good and its role in building out a strong social impact technology community. I then shared some of the lessons we have learned for maximizing the outcomes of social impact hackathons. In particular, I focused on the importance of conducting user testing by including end users in the brainstorming and prototyping process. I also emphasized that social impact hackathons should always have a post-event debrief, so that engineers can improve their understanding of the unique challenges and successes of building technology for social good.

Nwe took the floor next to talk about the needs of refugees after being resettled. She highlighted the thousands of refugees in the Bay Area, who have very immediate needs learning how to use technology and obvious impediments with English language skills. Nwe’s main point was that digital technology now has the ability to provide people in remote regions  with a world-class education— something that she hopes she can get the tech community more involved in. Nwe also emphasized that, while addressing the technological needs of Syrian refugees might be an ambiguous or daunting project, there are clear opportunities to help closer to home.  For examples, technologists can definitely help address the needs of the many refugees who have settled in Oakland.

Susan’s final talk truly complemented the panel. She described UNHCR’s field work, including the great projects of UNHCR Innovation Labs,  and presented evidence that the agency is making strides to provide more internet access to refugees in their camps. She highlighted work she had seen, where technology was used to help educate a select group of refugees in the camps to then go out and mentor other groups. Susan then mentioned the need to support entrepreneurship in refugee camps, which I think is also important.

In fact, in 2009, I spent several weeks in an Internally Displaced Persons camp outside the town of Gilgil, Kenya. The camp had about 15,000 inhabitants, which makes it fairly small compared to the camps for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Even in that rather small camp in Kenya, though, I saw innovation and entrepreneurship everywhere I went. For example, I met teenagers who had built a full bench press out of logs, and a man who had used old tires to create a foot-operated spinning saw that could cut bones, which he made into fine jewelry.

Closing the panel, Grace Chung helped us summarize the points we made. She emphasized the importance of having access to information on digital networks and encouraged Yahoo engineers to remember this fact while building apps for change. I have to agree: providing access to information through communication networks seems to be one of the most compelling uses of technology in the field. Smartphones, for instance, provide important location information, enable individuals to receive reports of happenings all around a refugee camp, and help the camp residents stay connected to the outside world. Mobile networks also encourage refugees to advocate, write, tell stories, take pictures, and spread news of their own personal experiences to the greater internet community. Is technology the most important need in a refugee camp? No, but it does empower individuals to share and access data in real-time, and this is an opportunity that people in remote places have never had before.

I’d like to thank Yahoo for Good for inviting me to represent SocialCoding4Good and talk about social impact technology. I can’t wait to hear how the Hack For Refugees event goes and to follow Yahoo and other companies in their efforts to help refugees. I hope that humanitarian missions extend education services to displaced individuals who must spend years of their lives living in camps, so that someday they can be better prepared for resettlement  and, like Nwe, use their newfound knowledge to empower other refugees to change their own lives for the better.