How Technology Is Redefining Nonprofit Aid

The current refugee crisis spreading from Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries through Europe—the largest since World War II—has created a number of challenges through the array of affected countries. It's also proved an opportunity for technology, particularly smartphones, to step in as an important source of help.

Loading up my phone in Vienna’s main train station nearly two weeks ago, the Wi-Fi network was hard to miss: “refugee_wifi”.

It wasn’t the only city on our two-week tour of central Europe that had a signifier of respect to the refugees moving through Europe from war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. (Many of them, such as in Oslo, Norway, took the form of ornate graffiti bluntly stating that refugees were welcome.) But it was one of many subtle reminders of a difficult political situation happening right under the noses of a wide population of people.

Nearly as hard to miss as that hotspot was the group of aid workers assisting refugees at a separate Vienna train station. What was striking about this was that, in its own way, the open hotspot was just as much a form of humanitarian aid as the food and shelter the aid workers were assisting those refugees with.

In its own way, the open hotspot was just as much a form of humanitarian aid as the food and shelter the aid workers were assisting those refugees with.

Before I go any further, a note of admission: There are lots of political issues around all this. And in a way, my wife and I represented an unwitting element of this political debate—we were tourists who booked a trip through a region that flared up months after the tickets were already set up, and we were well into our planning process. We were there for the third-wave coffee shops, castles, and local grub, and as a result, we represented a clear dichotomy from this large group of people streaming in from a war zone.

And it felt weird. As uncomfortable as our economy-class plane seats might have been—especially in the back row, with the dining cart constantly running into our elbows—they were definitely a lot more comfortable than the less-fortunate route those refugees took to get to the same places we eventually did. Our passports also ensured we’d be able to make it back to the U.S. without much of a problem. We didn’t have to check our bags, but we’ll gladly check our privilege.

And ultimately, this is a tech blog, so I’ll leave those political and diplomatic issues that this whole situation raises to other smart people.

Smartphones as Basic Tools

Instead, I want to use this post to highlight the idea of technological resourcefulness, something that has been a really powerful element of the refugee crisis.

This element is relatively new for this kind of crisis, and it has been a bit messy to look at from a distance. For example, some early critics of the refugee crisis tried to argue that smartphones highlighted an absurd luxury for people who had very little in the way of income. (The Independent did a good job of putting this line of criticism in its place.)

Fortunately, many keeping an eye on the crisis have slowly come to realize that smartphones are essential tools to solve difficult problems, including how to get to safer locations, places to go for help, and how to communicate with others in similar situations. This photo essay by the International Rescue Committee shows that, for many, having a smartphone is a default option.

And often, it’s the apps that make them essential. For example, the iOS and Android app Maps.Me allows users to download detailed offline maps, pinpoint a GPS location, create an array of bookmarks, and navigate through areas where a smartphone connection isn’t a guarantee. With the help of its recent addition of walking directions, it proved an extremely helpful tool for my wife and I as we fluttered through Europe. (We did get lost a few times, but it was largely a result of user error. Sorry, Cat.) For those trying to reach Hungary, Germany, or any number of European states, it was nothing less than a life-saver.

I may complain about my three-year-old MacBook’s slowness and bulk these days, but my complaints seem absurd in the context of what those heading into Europe are doing with smartphones that may not be anywhere near the latest models.

The nature of those using and similar apps—along with the rise of Facebook groups and Twitter feeds as a way to communicate during such a tough journey—is a great reminder of how technology is changing the nature of what survival means. In a lot of ways, we have a population equipped with advanced Swiss Army knives, allowing them to solve challenging problems even with a lack of resources.

Offering Aid With Apps

Nonprofits and aid groups are adapting their approach accordingly.

One German nonprofit, Flüchtlinge Willkommen, has created the equivalent of Airbnb for refugees, offering a place for those in need of shelter to stay. (Airbnb, it should be noted, offers a similar program itself.)

The Copenhagen-based nonprofit Refugees United has been offering Refunite, a tool to connect refugees with families, since 2008, but the tool has taken on a new significance in Europe with the recent crisis. The platform offered by the group works on low-quality phones, with some of its products working through SMS.

Refugee Maps, a London-based organization, went online last month as a way to connect the disparate networks of organizations and people looking to assist those making the long trek through Europe. Sometimes, that help isn’t so obvious on its own—giving it the Lonely Planet treatment makes things definitely feel a lot less lonely.

And this coming weekend, a group of volunteers and activists in Berlin will be getting together as part of a three-day hackathon, with the goal of creating new programs to further assist those traveling with limited resources. The group organizing the hackathon notes what those looking to help are up against.

“But very often there are difficulties which may be reduced with digital solutions, for example by better matching donations in kind or time at a certain place and time with real needs,” the Refugee Hackathon organizers write on their “about” page. “In addition, there are many different challenges for refugees in Germany, where simpler access to information and existing services can reduce barriers to integration. Very often, this approach can also be solved with practical apps that can be used at a smartphone.”

It’s important to note that a smartphone on its own doesn’t replace food, water, shelter, or other resources. But it offers a starting point, one that those looking to help can organize around. They can potentially improve outcomes in what might otherwise seem a hopeless situation.

And as a result, an open Wi-Fi network called “refugee_wifi” can take on new significance.

Refugees enter a temporary camp set up in Berlin, Germany. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!