About 41 per cent of the world's refugees are children, and about half of all refugees are women. Isolated from essential advice and information, they are often unable to get the help they need. But technology could help. A group of coders, designers, NGOs and academics are working to develop technology that can inform and educate female refugees of all ages.
"There was a real need that was being neglected," Hera Hussain, founder of domestic violence charity Chayn, tells WIRED. Hussain's charity is one of many organisations involved in EmpowerHack, a coding and design hackathon that aims to address that neglect.
Participants in the latest event, which took place in London between April 8 and 10, included voluntary technology community Techfugees; Women Hack for Non-Profit, an organisation that matches skilled women with open source, non-profit projects; the Muslim Doctors Association; and Terre des hommes, an organisation that helps disadvantaged children. The event earlier this month was the third EmpowerHack, with previous meet-ups in Ghana and London. The next event will take place in Amsterdam between April 22 and 24.
Support within the technology community for the continuing refugee crisis has been growing. Founded in September 2015, Techfugees already has more than 2,000 members in 12 countries. Organisations have also stepped in to provide training. Before the latest EmpowerHack, Women Hack for Non-Profit organised a beginner coding workshop in Ruby and HTML for those attending the event from a non-tech background. This skill-sharing and commitment to open-source development is key to how this hackathon works, its founder argues.
"We're not looking for a hot topic, we're looking for the next topic," says Han Pham, co-founder of EmpowerHack. The projects they work on, she explains, focus on issues that are too complicated to respond to when millions of people are at risk. At the latest event, one team is challenged with designing a service to provide mental health support for volunteers in the field. Another asks how NGOs can process tens of thousands of missing and undocumented children. A third project looks at how to help refugees with chronic diseases that require repeat prescriptions.
Often, just finding the right information is the biggest challenge for at-risk people. "I was helping someone close to me escape domestic abuse and seek asylum in the UK," explains Hussain. "I found it difficult to find any information online – as a digital native I felt like Google was letting me down. There are so many charity websites that have zero information, they're not user friendly."
EmpowerHack, she continues, is successful because it encourages collaboration. But to continue such initiatives need continued support. "We're run by volunteers and there are not many hackathons that last beyond the event," Hussain says. "Not only do we support projects afterwards, we also have a volunteer-run incubator."
It's within these small, dedicated teams that vital issues can be addressed. Each project is also linked to an NGO that is willing to back and use the technology that's created. Most of the projects take existing ideas and designs and rework them for a different audience.
One app being developed on the day was Soul Medicine, a smartphone app that sends an inspirational quote to refugees via SMS or WhatsApp. Designing an app for refugees throws up some unique problems; while 70 per cent of Syrian refugees have a smartphone, many are shared between one or two families. How do you design for multiple users? And might Soul Medicine's chosen quotes be too happy or too sad?
Hababy, a web app that provides prenatal and postnatal information for refugee women, came out of a previous EmpowerHack. One of its creators, Dr Hina Shahid, is now the clinical lead. "The concept came from the first hackathon in November," she says."The design challenge was inspired by my experiences in Lesvos – what I saw, and where the leads were. It's about taking pregnancy care forward."
"The web app has changed a lot – we're now targeting where we think we'll make the most difference, looking specifically at five red flags that pregnant women can face". Hababy is now hoping to integrate with Doctors of the World's ClinicFinder, which uses geo-location to find medical services for refugees.
Conventional startups, so the mantra goes, often have to be focused on attraction and retention, user journeys and download rates. Thinking about this process in relation to refugees and migrants presents new challenges. In a panel discussion, Pham explains that it might be useful to think about attracting new users as they are travelling. Have they just been rescued at sea? Are they coming ashore? Or at a check-point?
When is it possible – or even ethical – to approach them with new information?