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Techfugees: How a young social enterprise is supporting the tech community’s effort to help refugees

11th October 2016

Katalin Gallyas spoke to Techfugees' COO Joséphine Goube to hear about the success they have had over the past year.

With conflict, poverty and climate change all contributing to unprecedented flows of refugees into Europe, the need for innovative solutions to supporting and helping refugees has grown exponentially. Behind the politics and headlines which we see every day are thousands of people requiring access to basic services such as healthcare, education, identity recognition and internet access.

 

One organisation which has made impressive progress in trying to develop solutions that address some of these challenges is Techfugees, a social enterprise with a mission to bring together technologists, designers, hackers, architects, refugees and NGO’s to co-create hands-on solutions for the problems facing refugees every day.

 

Since being founded in 2015, Techfugees has grown into a global network with chapters around Europe and beyond and 15,000 members. We spoke to Josephine Goube and Gila Norich from Techfugees to learn more about their inspiring journey over the past year.

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Techfugees has experienced rapid growth since you were set up in 2015. Why do you think that is?

 

What we found with our work on Techfugees and past projects is that there is a huge appetite within the tech community to use digital tools and methods to address social challenges. What we did with Techfugees was to create a connection between the tech community and a specific challenge - in this case, the refugee crisis -, and to give people a platform where they could apply their best tech-based ideas to support a humanitarian challenge.

 

We think the tech community is good at bringing fast, applied solutions to address the problems faced by refugees, as they are problem solvers at the core. This is the positive mindset we think is needed when trying to develop solutions for refugees who are homeless, sick and facing tremendous uncertainty.

 

By originally organising people and local Techfugee groups on Facebook and Twitter we have now grown into a network with 15,000 members across the world, a large number of volunteers from 27 cities, around three staff per city supporting the international organisation of the network, and twelve people based in London - all volunteers.

 

We wouldn’t be where we are today without the dedication and personal charisma of our founder, Mike Butcher [Editor of TechCrunch]. He has an amazing way of connecting the tech community and refugee communities. This, alongside a good understanding of current problems, smart community building tools and good use of social media, has helped us grow so quickly since our founding.

 

Alongside mobilising the community  we have found that there is a huge added value in creating a platform where NGO’s and tech communities in different countries can share both refugee-related challenges they are currently trying to address and potential tech solutions to these challenges.

 

For this purpose we developed BASEFUGEES, which is a web-based, open source platform that matches technology solutions to NGO “challenges” with the aim of solving real-world problems faced by refugees. We often refer to this as our ‘brain child’, as BASEFUGEES is where refugee related problems are exposed to technologists and the work can start through smart matchmaking (matching field expertise, availability, location and so on).

 

Tell us about some of your recent successful Techfugees projects .

 

Our events and hackathons have led to bring to light a number of successful initiatives since we were founded. For example, at one of our hackathons in Belgrade in April of this year, some techies showed us a mobile wifi router they had created from scratch over the summer to help refugees on the way. Helped by the local tech community, the meshpoint team worked at a second version of a 3D-printed wifi routers, powered by solar energy, to be placed in refugee camps. Today, we are supporting them to scale to other regions and to be known in the humanitarian sector.

 

What’s great about our approach, is that we use a hacker mentality: the techfugees community is not trying to build a fancy app or a unicorn. They are looking how relatively low-tech solution can be used in situs. This is this approach that led to the birth of Infobus, a bus providing wifi in Calais and online journalism classes. This uses relatively “old” technology - a so-called USSD protocol - to create a fully offline communication project for refugees that works on any kind of mobile phone. This means refugees can access communication and information. And we know how powerful information can be, especially in distressed situations.



We also have projects initiated by refugees themselves. One inspiring story is that of Adam Sakhr, who came to France from Sudan without being able to read or write French. He attended a coding school in Paris called Simplon and then developed Nowall, one of eleven tech projects developed at the first Paris-based Techfugees hackathon. Nowall seeks to make administration and bureaucracy more accessible to refugees by providing translation services through SMS, phone and face-to-face meetings. Nowall is currently about to enter its testing phase.

 

What are the biggest challenges you face as an organisation?

The biggest issue, however, is that the tech community is more business-oriented, and the questions they are looking for answers to - how can we make money out of data? - aren’t always in line with Techfugees’  guidance on data privacy and security.

 

We are educating the tech community to those topics around data - as it could be directly or indirectly harming the vulnerable people who we are trying to help.



What have you learned during the first year of Techfugees?

We have learned that our mission is a marathon, not a sprint. We will not solve the problems facing refugees overnight. The UN has been trying to do this for at least two decades - we think we have done well to launch a problem-solving community within eight months, but it will be a long time before our mission is complete, and our hopes are high on Basefugees to help us scale our concept, and deploy tech. We have also stressed to our community that including the refugees themselves is really important - most of us cannot imagine the conditions they have lived in, and we must understand their needs correctly if we are to build effective solutions. This will also involve, in time, fully empowering refugees to lead within the organisation itself.

 

To find out more, visit www.techfugees.com

Card image courtesy of Techfugees.

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