Tech community puts on its thinking app to help refugees

At Oslo Innovation Week, technology to aid people fleeing opression is being showcased


While a new app or two won’t solve the refugee crisis, technology is key to bringing about social change in authoritarian societies and is a powerful tool for those escaping such regimes, delegates at an influential tech fest have been told.

Members of the tech community who have gathered in Oslo this week are being encouraged to do more to assist people living under tyranny and to aid those fleeing it. By using their skillsets, they can help save lives and improve the day-to-day existence of those resettling elsewhere.

Speaking at Oslo Innovation Week, Mike Butcher, the founder of Techfugees, a social enterprise coordinating the international tech community’s response to the needs of refugees, warned the current humanitarian crisis was not going to end anytime soon.

“This is one of the biggest issues facing the world over the next 20 years. We must address it and use technology to help scale solutions quickly,” he told delegates.

Butcher, who is also editor-at-large of the website Techcrunch, established Techfugees last September in response to media coverage of the refugee crisis. What started as a Facebook group and Twitter hashtag has quickly grown to the point that it now has over 15,000 members and local chapters across the globe.

The organisation is in the process of setting up Basefugees – a web-based open-source platform supporting technology projects that are responding to current refugee needs and NGO challenges. It is also establishing itself as a full-blown charity.

“Seeing the terrible images of children dying in the media last year led me and many others to wonder what on earth was going on. I thought that with the innovation shown in the tech community and the problem-solving abilities of those working in the sector, that there was more that we could do, and Techfugees emerged from that,” said Butcher.

“What’s happened over the last 50 years is that the response of refugee NGOs has tended to focus on the same things such as ensuring there is food, water, shelter and so on. I thought we had to be able to add something else by involving the tech community,” he added.


Among recent solutions that have emerged through Techfugees’ hackathons are, a website for recycling and donating mobile phones to refugees, MeshPoint, a rugged Wi-Fi access point, and Refugees On Rails, a tool that teaches refugees to code.

In addition to its other work, Techfugees has recently established a number of partnerships with the likes of the Red Cross and United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and with companies such as the Norwegian media group Schibsted.

Butcher said that any solutions developed had to involve refugees and those supporting them, rather than be something techies thought might be useful. He also stressed that projects backed by Techfugees were aids rather than concrete solutions.

“We certainly don’t believe an app is going to solve the refugee crisis but what we’re saying is that we’ve got to start trying to fix things and that these things might help,” he said.

A Techfugees-backed 48-hour hackathon involving 120 people was one of the key events of this year’s Oslo Innovation Week. The winner was Kom Inn, which has created a database that matches up refugees with Norwegians so they can get to know local people by engaging in activities such as hiking or meeting for dinner.

Hot topic


More broadly, the use of technology to bring about social change is a recurring theme of this year’s festival.

Among the keynote speakers at the event was Roya Mahboob, an Afghan tech entrepreneur and businesswoman who was previously listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

Mahboob founded and serves as chief executive of the Afghan Citadel Software Company, an IT consulting firm based in Herat, Afghanistan, which employs a large number of women.

This is no small matter given that less than 10 per cent of people in Afghanistan have internet access and less than 1 per cent of women there can go online.

Mahboob is also a board member and president of the Digital Citizen Fund, a non-profit organisation focused on promoting digital literacy to empower women and children in developing countries.

“Technology is the link that will bring social change and freedom to conservative nations around the world,” she told delegates.

“I grew up in a conservative society in which women are not expected or encouraged to become leaders but were expected to dream of getting married to men that were chosen for us by our parents. I found a way out of this through discovering the only internet cafe in Herat. It opened up my eyes to a bigger world,” Mahboob added.

She said that when she started her own company she experienced difficulties because men did not want to do business with a woman. Moreover, some clients outright refused to pay for work done.

IT centres for girls


Another event speaker, Iyad el-Baghdadi, an activist and entrepreneur, who was forced to flee the United Arab Emirates in 2014 after a series of satirical tweets he sent upset authorities, hailed social media as a key tool in promoting freedom.

“The most intelligent and provocative voices against tyranny are those who are living under it. These are some of the most articulate and sophisticated voices out there but they don’t get heard in traditional media in their own countries. They only go online,” he said.

“If there was a Pulitzer for this kind of activity I think we could easily find good examples of individuals who are posting analysis daily and creating big news that has a real impact,” he added.

While societal change was a key theme at this year’s event, as with other tech-focused festivals, Oslo Innovation Week, which features 250 speakers and more than 70 events, also had its fill of drones, virtual reality toys, pitching contests and workshops. Now in its 11th year, over 10,000 people are expected to attend the 2016 event.

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