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ICT4Refugees report - takeaways

A new report surveyed refugees in Greece, Jordan and Turkey to find out how they used digital technology, as well as talking to initiatives using tech to help refugees. Here's a summary of the report's findings.

The refugee crisis in Europe has triggered a flurry of initiatives making use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to try to help those fleeing conflict or political or economic turmoil.

Published by Germany's GIZ development agency, the Berlin-based digital think-tank Betterplace Lab and Kiron, an education for refugees startup, the ICT4Refugees report aims to understand what civic technology groups are doing to help refugees and how the potential of digital technologies can be better harnessed.

The report is based on interviews conducted between February and March 2016 with refugees and people working on refugee projects in Greece, Jordan and Turkey.

A major finding is that project creators don't always clearly understand how refugees use digital technology and run the risk of investing money and resources in content that fails to reach its target group. This is because the majority of refugees consume and share information via messaging apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp rather than sending emails or typing in a website's address in a browser.

Here is a cheat sheet to the ICT4Refugees report.

What exactly does ICT4Refugees mean?

The research focuses on ICT projects supporting refugees who have fled their homes to another country. Although ICTs include a whole range of information and communication technologies (such as using mobile phones to send and receive information via SMS), in this case the researchers found that the Internet was the predominant technology being used by the refugees. As such, ICTS here are digital devices such as smartphones and tablets with Internet access.

Who is starting up ICT4 refugees initiatives?

Traditional humanitarian organizations are involved but also increasingly the civic tech community, which was the focus of the study. These civic tech initiatives are often informal collectives "populated by people mainly with a professional tech background." They tend to be more akin to tech startups with more agile and informal approaches to developing and deploying ideas.

How do refugees use technologies?

The report found that smartphone ownership among Syrian refugees is almost universal and that smartphones are the primary means of accessing the Internet. Messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger are very popular, whereas email is not widely used. Many of the refugees had little concept of the Internet, a website or a website address (URL). Refugees predominantly seek information on their phones directly from others (peer-to-peer) rather than searching on the Internet.

Can you give me an example of an ICT4 refugees project?

Unfortunately, the report doesn't include any examples of ICT4Refugees initiatives that use messenger services to provide information or support. But it does highlight an online service, refugeeinfo.eu, which despite being a website, take its users’ tech habits into account in other ways. For example, because its users access the site on a smartphone, it's carefully designed to use little data and save battery power. As well as advertising the site on posters and banners hanging in refugee camps, the organization behind the site has coordinated with initiatives offering free wifi to refugees to make refugeeinfo.eu the splash page (the site first seen when logging onto the wifi service). These strategies make the service more discoverable by users not used to surfing the Internet for information.

What are the major challenges to ICT4 refugee projects?

Identifying and understanding the tech literacy, access and use of a particular group is a challenge, as is finding ways for the civic tech community and traditional humanitarian organizations to work together more effectively. Other challenges include outreach strategies to let refugees know about a particular service, as well as data protection and security.

What should I think about when designing a ICT4 refugees project?

The report has eight recommendations:

  1. Work with what already exists. Use digital services, contents and tools that are already available.
  2. Lower the barriers for usage and communicate via platforms that are easily accessed and understood such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Some users might not know what a URL is or they might not have an email address to log into Google Play to download an app.
  3. Consider programs to increase tech access and literacy. Digital learning, for example, often requires greater data usage or a computer, and providing access to these could have long-term impacts. Increasing digital literacy can also help refugees eventually access digital learning possibilities.
  4. On-the-ground experience is key as is user-centered project design.
  5. Outreach is likely to be the biggest hurdle. Projects often fail because users don't know they exist. Online and offline outreach strategies should be an integral part of every project.
  6. Prioritize responsible data practices. 'Do no harm' should always be a priority when designing a technology project. Especially refugees who are fleeing from war and repressive regimes should not be harmed by projects that collect personal information.
  7. Engage the civic tech community. Such groups can bring new expertise and experience. Consider engaging the civic tech community. Also invest support systemically in hubs, networks and connectivity.
  8. Facilitate dialogue and collaboration between different groups of actors.

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