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The Techfugees Summit: Creative Tech Solutions for Refugees

How is the tech community creating tools for people who have been forcibly displaced? Lush Times writer Katie Dancey-Downs reports from the Techfugees Global Summit 2018 in Paris

“One of the big secrets of the tech industry is that it’s actually about people,” Techfugees Chairman Mike Butcher says as he opens this year’s Summit.

Technology is not just about finding solutions, he says, but also about bringing people together. As solutions and innovations are discussed on the main stage across the two days of the Techfugees Summit, community is at the core of every idea.

Techfugees coordinates and supports the international tech community in finding solutions for people who have been forcibly displaced, with the aim of empowering people through technology. This is the second year of the Techfugees Global Summit, with a focus on how tech can aid integration, and help people overcome challenges they face as they arrive in a new country.

Before the panel debates and tech discussions start, the former Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, takes to the stage. He was once a refugee in Sweden, and he tells us about a time when he was attacked on the street, and verbally abused.

Addressing the audience, he says: “I would implore Techfugees to explore ways of making tech affordable, accessible, but also safe for those who have been displaced.”

He says that not enough resources have been given to supporting refugees, and that there is an opportunity to be more politically innovative. He suggests creating a European passport for refugees and migrants, and allowing people to vote.

“The world is not really facing a refugee crisis so much as a leadership crisis,” he says, telling people that they should not look for saviours, but that solutions will come from the community. By finding solutions for refugees, he says, the whole of society can benefit.

Accessing rights

Munzer Khattab is a refugee in Germany, and he’s also CEO of BureauCrazy, a non-profit organisation in Berlin aiming to simplify bureaucratic systems that refugees and migrants may find themselves struggling to wade through.

Munzer explains that when he arrived in Germany, all the information was in German, and written in such a complex legal way that even native speakers might find themselves struggling to understand it.

“I’ve found myself in a place where I know literally nothing about the country,” he says, explaining that this is not just an issue concerning refugees, but all migrants.

“We’re trying to be part of this community. We’re not trying to stay as refugees.”

BureauCrazy is currently developing an app which will translate complicated forms into different languages, using simplified terminology. It will also fill out forms automatically, and translate the answers back into German.

Identity and data

Should all ID be stored through blockchain? Would it solve problems for asylum seekers, or create more?

A panel discussing data privacy and protection imagines this scenario. A world where our data is stored on blockchain, a technology made up of blocks of information, where transactions are recorded in a shared database, and where there is no master copy. It cannot be controlled by any one person.

Fabrice Epelboin, a creative technologist and teacher at SciencesPo, describes this idea as “a universal identity that will never leave us.” He says that blockchain is by definition something public, and quite the opposite of privacy.

What, he asks, will we do if we find ourselves facing a hostile government and don’t want to be found? This question comes from personal experience. Fabrice’s father worked for the resistance in France during World War II when his job was to give fake IDs to Jewish children. This, he says, would be impossible in a digital world.

Taking the conversation a step further into what seems like the world of science fiction, Fabrice suggests that RFID chips (electronically stored information) in humans could arrive sooner than we think. He believes there will be huge side effects.

“We need to have an extensive conversation and lots of research,” he says.

Other members of the tech community are finding that blockchain is a useful tool for empowering refugees. One of those people is Snorre Lothar von Gohren Edwin, who explains how Diwala, a blockchain-based platform, verifies people’s skills and gives the user valuable data. People can use the App to prove their identity, or as a digital CV. Users will have an encrypted key, so that they can choose who they share the information with, and take ownership of their data.

Innovation for communities

Across the two days, organisations and individuals discuss tech tools that could help empower communities.

Emily McDonald, lead experience researcher at AirBnB, spoke about the company’s Open Homes initiative, where people who use the platform can offer free short-term shelter to asylum seekers. Hosts can decide how much they want to be involved - it could just be a room, or it could be providing meals, or showing their new guests around the community.

Taking this idea a step further, changes are being made to the Open Homes platform, so that it fosters the idea of a continued connection after the stay. To help this happen, the Company is focusing more on the human element in the property listings, rather than the physical shelter.

“The idea of opening up one’s home to a stranger was pretty radical about ten years ago,” Emily says. Now, agencies are using the Open Homes platform to match asylum seekers with suitable hosts.

Brianna MacNeil, project manager at RightMesh, explains how people in refugee camps often find themselves unconnected due to a lack of infrastructure, slow networks, network restrictions, or expensive data. She proposes a new approach - peer-to-peer connectivity, using the wireless technology already built into smartphones. Instead of relying on wifi or cellular data, the Mesh Messaging App works on things like bluetooth, and can be used to connect to people within a certain proximity. For example, people in the same refugee camp.

As well as peer-to-peer messaging, the App will be used for NGOs to share vital information within the camp, and people can sell their own data for connection with the wider world. While the App can’t be used to browse the Internet at the moment, Brianna explains that this is something the RightMesh team is working on. Right now, the App is complementary to internet browsing apps, rather than replacing them.

Another social inclusion technology, is NaTakallum. This platform gives refugees a digital space where they can work remotely as translators or language tutors. So far, over 3,500 users from over 65 countries have been connected through the platform.

The organisation’s CEO, Aline Sara, says that people are not only able to gain an income, but also get a feeling of social inclusion and value through connecting with people around the world.

The need for innovation

Closing the summit, Syrian Kurd journalist, Rania Ali, talks about the obstacles she faced when she arrived in Austria.

“For me, integration was very difficult at the beginning, because of the isolation, and the prejudice,” she says.

“While I had trauma, it did not stall my progress. Circumstances did.”

So much of the conference focuses on giving people control of their own pathways, and control of their own information. These technologies may not solve the problems that lead to forced displacement in the first place, but they are tools to help overcome very difficult situations.

The need for innovation is made clear throughout the Summit, and there is no clearer message than the one from Tey El Rjula, co-founder and CEO of Tykn, which he started whilst inside a refugee camp that he describes as a prison: “Never wait for permission to innovate. Just do it.”

The world is not really facing a refugee crisis so much as a leadership crisis - George Papandreou

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