Techfugees Cambridge: How can tech help displaced people?

We attended and sponsored the first Techfugees Cambridge Conference, which focused on how we can use technology to find practical solutions to the problems faced by displaced people, in particular those in the refugee camp in Calais known as the jungle.

For me, the thread that ran through the day was all the different touchpoints with tech. There are 65 million displaced people across the world; how are they using existing technology in such desperate situations and what tools are being developed by grassroots organisations in response to the crisis?

Take the first speaker, Hassan Akkad (above). A Syrian teacher fleeing the ‘World War III’ situation back home, this time last year he was on a boat, trying to get to Europe and eventually the UK. 65 people on board a dinghy which should have carried 10.  As the boat began to sink he used Whatsapp to message a friend in the US, sent her his location and she was able to call the coastguard, and their lives were saved.

Facebook is a huge source of information for people in Hassan’s situation, with groups for people to share information on where to find a people smuggler, offer tips on getting to Lesvos, and post maps with possible routes.

When he got to Europe, Hassan used offline maps from to track his route. Going from smuggler to smuggler, at one point with 26 of them in a van for 12 hours, he was able to continually check his phone to check his location, using a Power Bank to make sure it was fully charged.

Finally in Britain, after a distressing 87-day journey, including two months in the jungle, the brushes with tech continued. Bloods and fingerprints taken, along with a 360° photo of his head, legal process complete, and he was able to claim asylum.

He filmed the whole thing on his GoPro – watch it in the BBC documentary Exodus later this month.

So this is just one tale. Throughout the day we heard more about the way that technology meets practical need.

Basefugees is a web-based platform just launched by Techfugees which supports technology projects around the world that respond to current refugee needs and NGO challenges.

Sophie Newman-Sanders explained how they’re trying to set up a system where they give out sim cards to Unicef so that when refugees arrive in Europe they can stay in contact with their families. They also need a way of proving their identity and doing so in a secure environment.

Phone credit for refugees and displaced people is a closed Facebook group where refugees can make a request for phone credit and people make donations to top them up. You can also donate via this MyDonate page.

Phone credit is particularly important for children who are travelling alone (just stop and think about that for a second. There are thousands of them). Not only does it enable them to keep in touch with family members, but we also heard how one boy was able to Google information relating to his maths book, and use Google Translate to help him read a copy of Robinson Crusoe.

Throughout the day we saw how – with major aid agencies like Oxfam and Unicef being legally barred from going into the camps – these grassroots communities are springing up and coming up with solutions to these sorts of problems. Staffed by volunteers, they're battling issues of scale and funding that big charities just don't face.

The workshop I attended in the afternoon focused on helping the guys who run this Facebook group to speed up their admin processes. Their founder is currently doing 14-hour days, and using a combination of Facebook and a spreadsheet rather than something more suited to the job isn’t making things any easier.

Hats off to Leah Bae, who rolled up her sleeves and said, ’Give me half an hour and I’ll set up Google Forms for you.’ And then just got on with it. There was no shortage of people at the event who take this exact approach and I have enormous admiration for them. 

The Refugee Info Bus is a mobile tech hub which brings a free wifi hotspot into the jungle. It offers resources on board to help refugees understand the legal processes of their situation, to make calls and download useful apps. It also encourages citizen journalism; giving people a voice is incredibly empowering when you are in this situation.

The talk from Rowan Farrell was done in tandem with a member of the team on the Info Bus, via Skype. An incredibly effective way of helping someone like me, who hasn’t visited the camps, to understand what conditions are like.

Data security is incredibly important, explained Richard Dent, co-organiser of the event. When refugees return home to Syria, as they pass through checkpoints they have their phones taken off them and these are checked for allegiances to ISIL and Assad. Many of these well-intentioned apps to help refugees are collecting masses of data, which is vulnerable to nice people like the Syrian Electronic Army, who can hack into pretty much anything.

He spoke about the work Cambridge startup SimPrints is doing around data encryption and highlighted the UK government’s guidelines for collecting data, in their Data Science Ethical Framework.

The Calais Solidarity Group, run by ‘Calais Bin Lady’, Rachel Mantell, is a Facebook group which tries to coordinate all the aid (material and otherwise) which comes in. It went from a couple of people to 17k overnight, following the death of little Aylan Kurdi.It’s now nearing 40k members.

Rachel explained that one issue they face is that Islamic extremist, paedophile rings and people smugglers try to infiltrate the group, knowing that it some of its members are extremely vulnerable people. She said how they put a stop to ‘looking for’ posts and printed posters, as these are sometimes created by people smugglers looking for people who have escaped.

Getting wifi into the camp is tricky. Unless you fly it in with Raspberry Pi strapped to drones! Arjuna Sathiaseelan explained how these act as flying data centres, which brings much needed connectivity to the camps.

So, what can you do to help?

Have you read this and thought you want to be part of it? People with tech skills are needed as part of Techfugees and Techfugees Cambridge, but also people who can sort clothes in the warehouses and prepare food. Take a look at the links on the right and find out how you can contribute. 

What is Techfugees?

Techfugees is a social enterprise coordinating the international tech community’s response to the needs of refugees. Set up in September 2015, they organise conferences, workshops, hackathons and meetups in around the world in an effort to generate tech solutions that can help.

Techfugees Cambridge is one of 20 Techfugees groups around the world. The first conference took place on 2 July 2016 at Botanic House (above), offices of Mills & Reeve, and was sponsored by Sookio, Redgate and Joshua PR.

If you would like to help with Techfugees projects, do get in touch via the website or their social media channels:

Techfugees on Facebook

Techfugees Cambridge on Facebook

Quick links

Phone credit for refugees and displaced people Facebook group.
Donate via MyDonate

Refugee Info Bus

Calais Solidarity Group on Facebook