Techfugees, when technology saves lives

Few initiatives better prove technology’s potential for good than TechFugees. Founded in 2015 by TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher and led today by entrepreneuse Josephine Goube, the non-profit, which encourages startups to devise solutions to help refugees, organised its second Global Summit at Paris’ Station F late October.

The event’s “Global Challenges” competition saw tech companies, as well as social and tech entrepreneurs, many  of which were refugees themselves, submit countless innovative applications and services across five different categories. All had to take into consideration the technological constraints of displaced people.

Many do possess smartphones – some have even been saved from drowning by managing to send a WhatsApp message from the middle of the ocean – but as obtaining mobile data access is often challenging, applications have to work offline, as far as is possible. None of which stopped this year’s participants from showing impressive levels of ingenuity and utility.

The “Access to rights and information” category was won by Integreat, an application that allows refugees to find out all they need to know about their town of destination – what administrative steps to take, what accommodation possibilities exist, and so on – all without need for an internet connection, and in the language of its users.

As for “Health“, this essential category saw Shifra take first prize. This web app facilitates access to local services and information sources related to sexual and reproductive health, also in a number of different languages. Shifra can also guide refugees to the health centres best adapted to their situation.

Thirdly, Antura and the Letters, a mobile game which helps Syrian children to read Arabic, won the “Education” category. This free game was conceived to be as accessible as possible: it works on smartphones up to eight years old, and at 80Mb, is not too heavy to download. It could also be easily adapted to help children learn other languages.

Next, the winner of the “Work/Recruitment” category could be a major game-changer beyond the domain of the displaced. TaQadam is a startup specialised in image recognition by artificial intelligence (AI)… with refugees’ help. They are paid a minimum of four dollars an hour to annotate images, directly via their phones, thereby optimising the AI’s performance. For TaQadam’s founders, this system could represent “the future of work”; and could today be crucial in easing refugees’ precarity.

Finally, the fifth category, “Social Inclusion“, was won by Refugees Are. This platform aggregates news about refugees, and encourages its users to rate articles as positive or negative, thereby providing a real-time tracking system for the public perception of the cause of the displaced. This way, Refugees Are aims to counter what it calls the “xenophobia” of certain news outlets.

Not forgetting Mohajer, an app which won a special prize for its support of Afghan refugees in Iran, by offering detailed information on this community’s rights, and giving them the possibility to share their experiences.

Why is a mobilisation like this so necessary today? Because, according to the UN, in 2017, 258 million people left their countries of origin to find homes elsewhere; and this figure is set to grow by 2050, as climate change forces more and more people to leave their dwelling places.

Faced with such challenges, “technology is an inclusion catalyst that can facilitate integration,” says Joanna Kirk, head of TechFugees France. Whence the need for the Techfugees Global Summit, she says. Because “it’s through events like this, where many attendees, speakers, project leads or entrepreneurs attending were refugees themselves, that we can learn to better understand the needs of the displaced, and what we need to do to meet them.”

Support TechFugees here:

Top photo © Jawad Allazkani

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