By Bernard Marr*
The flight of refugees from troubled areas of the world has often been one of the most devastating consequences of warfare. Mass migration involving thousands of people travelling with no infrastructure in place to support their journey often leads to humanitarian catastrophe. Additionally, resources are often stretched both in the countries they pass through and the destinations where they hope for asylum.
According to Amnesty International over four million refugees have fled the conflict in Syria, with the majority now in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Sheltering, feeding and providing essential healthcare is a huge undertaking requiring coordinated work from hundreds of governmental, private sector and voluntary organizations.
With huge numbers such as these, logistics clearly play an important role, and technology – particularly technology driven by data and analytics – is being put to use in some innovative and potentially life-saving ways.
Last year, Nagina Kaur Dhanoa, chief information officer for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC) said “The first thing people running the Za’atri [refugee] camp in Jordan ask for is not tents and blankets, but where they can charge their mobile phone.”
While to us a smartphone might be a way to pass idle time nattering with friends on social media, to a refugee it is a lifeline, offering access to information and services put in place to help them, as well as keeping in touch with loved ones left behind. In fact the mobile phone is central to a wide range of strategies being pioneered, many by the UNHRC’s Innovation program.
When a refugee arrives at a country and makes a claim for asylum, their details are entered into the UN’s ProGres database, which was developed in partnership with Microsoft. This makes them eligible for first-line humanitarian aid such as the provision of food and medical aid from the UN and partner organizations while the details of their individual claims to asylum are assessed. With the current Syrian crisis, all of this aid is distributed in the form of vouchers and cards encoded with digital identifiers. These identifiers allow their use to be tracked, so demand for resources can be monitored and forecast. While in some countries such as Lebanon the digital cards and vouchers can be used to draw cash from ATMs, their usage can still be used to track the underlying trends behind the movement of people. The technology uses iris scanning to establish the identity of refugees and this biometric information is encoded into the aid cards and vouchers they receive. In the Middle East, iris scanners are increasingly becoming a part of the furniture in the retail shops where the cards and vouchers are accepted in exchange for basic necessities.
It’s worth noting that refugees have just as much right to protection of their sensitive personal data as everyone else does – and this right is coded into the technology behind the system. It has been built from the ground up to allow a refugee to confirm their identity without divulging personal details to a third party (such as a shopkeeper).
Technology is also vitally important to the refugees themselves during their journey. An article in the British Newspaper ‘The Independent’ recently addressed the fact that people sometimes seem surprised to see refugees travelling with expensive-looking smartphones. As the article points out, if you’re travelling thousands of miles without a reliable source of shelter or nutrition, a device which can immediately tell you where to find these things is pretty much the most useful thing you could take with you.
In fact this need is seen as so pressing that the GSM Association earlier this year launched the Humanitarian Mobile Connectivity Charter calling for a coordinated plan from mobile service operators to provide emergency network coverage in areas where it is needed by refugees. This demand can be assessed through data from the UNs ProGres system as well as that collected in the field by other NGOs and voluntary organizations.
Health data is obviously very important for refugees, too. Medical records provide essential information for ongoing healthcare, but clearly many people who have fled a warzone will not have access to theirs. Due to this, projects are underway to develop ways for a person to carry their own health records in a portable, electronic format. It is thought that this could save many lives in situations where acute care is first needed, such as when a refugee arrives at their destination following a long, badly resourced journey. It is also hoped that it will overcome difficulties caused by language barriers when a translation interface is not always available between doctors and patient, such as at a front-line refugee arrival point.
In these crowded centers around the Middle East, there is never enough experienced medical staff to cope with demand, and as a result many healthcare agencies are turning to the newly emerging field of telemedicine for solutions. Organizations such as the Syrian American Medical Society allow specialists around the world to communicate with patients in Middle Eastern field hospitals remotely, and even to supervise complex surgical procedures.
In Jordan, SIM cards for local networks are handed out to refugees, which not only help the refugees stay in touch with loved ones, but mean important information within camps can be spread via text messages, and allow a more accurate count of the population to be kept by monitoring the number of active cellphones in the region. Other services – such as that provided by charity Refunite – provide simple interfaces for refugees to use their smartphones to connect with loved ones they have become separated from on the journey. It uses Unstructured Supplementary Service Data to allow people to search for others registered on the service using technology similar to text messaging, in locations where full internet access might be unavailable or unreliable.
Ongoing connectivity is important for education, too. In locations where war has shut down schools, particularly in developing nations, it simply isn’t viable for an entire generation to miss out on the opportunity of schooling. To combat this, initiatives involving remote learning are being set up to assist displaced people. Unicef – which recently said 13 million children are missing out on schooling because of war in the middle east – has set up a service called Sahabati (Arabic for “My Cloud”) to offer online, remote teaching and assessment to refugee children.
Technology might be mitigating the humanitarian effects of war, but the battle is ongoing and by current projections is likely to get worse before it gets better. This prompted Barack Obama to call on Silicon Valley companies to come up with more innovative ways of offering aid and assistance. Many are already stepping forward – such as crowdsourcing platform Instagram, which relaxed rules preventing it from being used by charities and non-profits to allow aid to be crowd-sourced for refugees.
Online accommodation-sourcing agency AirBnB has created a dedicated channel allowing aid workers and others working to help refugees to stay close to locations they are needed. At the same time, a separate, grassroots group which has become known as “AirBnB for refugees” has been set up to help crowdsource accommodation for refugees in European nations.
In fact crowdsourcing is proving to be one of the most useful data-driven tools for tackling refugee challenges. Last year the UNHCR launched an initiative using Midjet’s Spigit Engaged platform to encourage citizens of destination countries to come up with ways to help refugees integrate with communities in their new homes
The tech community has undoubtedly responded positively to the ongoing and worsening humanitarian crisis which we are seeing develops across the Middle East and now into Europe, too. But there is still a great deal to be done. Problems caused by widespread migration away from warzones are only going to become more acute. The global population continues to increase, as does our technological capability, but we seem unable or unwilling to move away from the violent tendencies which cause these problems in the first place. While we may have to conclude that technology will not prevent war, it may go some way to easing the suffering of its innocent victims.
*Bernard Marr is a best-selling author, keynote speaker and business consultant in big data, analytics and enterprise performance.