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The refugee crisis will not be hacked

by Rose Foran, Internews | Internews
Friday, 29 July 2016 13:26 GMT

Children stand around a solar powered charging station for mobile devices designed by a group of university students, at the municipality-run camp of Kara Tepe on the island of Lesbos, Greece, June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In many ways, the tech impulse to herald apps as a panacea has become the new white savior complex in the humanitarian world

There is a collective eye-roll among my humanitarian colleagues when a new app concept is announced in a coordination meeting by a fresh-faced tech consultant on loan from Silicon Valley, an ‘idea lab guru,’ an energetic representative from a Scandinavian university.

The fall-out from the I-SEA app scandal charters the narrative perfectly. We know how it begins: An app lauded as a way to crowd-source the search in the Mediterranean for refugee boats using real-time satellite imagery.

We know how it ends: a static image of the water a year old. Another defunct refugee app that died not with a bang, but a whimper.

Somehow, tech has been one of the few ways the West has been able to garner any interest or sympathy for those who have been the victims of this gargantuan puzzle. In many ways, the tech impulse to herald apps as a panacea has become the new white savior complex in the humanitarian world. We so desperately want to believe that building an app or running an all-night hackathon will somehow reach across the sea and pluck refugees to safety.

It won’t. Quite simply, the refugee crisis will not be hacked.

Here’s the problem: groups that think that the shiny new toy they present in a conference room in Berlin filled with earnest—and surely well-meaning—bureaucrats will somehow replace the hard work on the ground, face-to-face with refugees.

An app won’t do crowd control in a food distribution line. An app won’t sit down and talk with refugees about what their options are for asylum under ever-changing laws.

And most importantly, an app for refugees is outdated the minute after it is created unless it is continually fed with updated information. In other words, it runs the risk of becoming dumber, not smarter, the longer it exists.

Response to mass migration cannot be solved by a singular tool or medium. Instead, the humanitarian community should be thinking of ways to integrate them into a wider information ecosystem.

One of the primary issues with using tech and social media has been how to maintain their sustainability and relevance, especially as the situation for refugees in places like Greece, where I have worked for the past eight months, is complex and ever-changing. There is a great impulse to attempt to solve issues relating to bureaucracy, legal status, or complex service needs with an app, website, or through social media.

But sustainability is something that a lot of well-meaning techies don’t have the capacity to plan for or see through. If you set up an online infrastructure, you also need to think about a wide range of components: Who can make sure it’s up-to-date? Who can make sure translations are correct and reflect the context? How do you make sure that someone gets the information that is for them, and not for someone who falls under a different category or criteria? The mismanagement of information has the potential to do great harm to the population we are trying to serve.

That being said, social media as a tool to gather and analyze humanitarian data is indeed a game changer. We have found that harnessing social media for the purposes of collecting meaningful feedback from refugees has been an incredibly valuable component in keeping in touch with our audience, and making sure that the information we provide meets their needs.

Notably, we interact with people through our NewsThatMoves Facebook pages, but it is important to point out that this is one platform we support as part of a wider information ecosystem. People trust us because they’ve seen my colleagues from the time they arrived in Lesvos, to when they were stuck at Pireaus port or the Idomeni site at the Greek-Macedonian border. We have spoken their language and answered their questions, and provided useful information when they have needed it the most. Our website and Facebook pages fit into a well-rounded humanitarian response, and we would have been foolish to think that one of these elements would have worked without the other.

But let’s end any knee-jerk notion that issues that arise in humanitarian crises can be ‘Uber-ized.’ When my friends at home ask what they can do to help, I tell them to raise money to get lawyers trained in asylum laws to Greece. It’s not sexy, and goodness knows it’s not simple. But it’s what is needed the most.

Rose Foran is a senior humanitarian liaison officer with Internews in Greece.