Why new smartphone apps aren’t the answer to refugee justice

Smartphones are critical for refugees, not only to communicate with family and friends but to serve as a potential reporting mechanism for human rights abuses.

Whatsapp, a free app which enables users to make calls, send texts, and share photos and videos globally, provides refugees with a way of communicating with family or friends. Facebook Messenger allows messages and calls between Facebook users and is accessible to anyone with a Facebook account. Maps.me enables user to find their geographical location anywhere in the world, including at sea, wirelessly. Dropbox enables users to store and access and submit critical information, such as immigration forms, using a third-party digital space instead of the individual’s device’s storage.

These apps, stemming from existing web-based services designed to allow free and, essentially, limitless communication and sharing, have empowered refugees by enabling them to access and disseminate critical information.

New apps that have been designed to help refugees, however, are costly as they require individuals to learn how to navigate a new interface, perhaps use more data, and are less trustworthy (due to unfamiliarity) than those that they already use. Indeed, the mere act of downloading an app in the first place requires users to break with existing behavioural patterns on their devices, reducing the probability of successful adoption of any other app, beyond popular social media and communication apps.

One solution to this problem is incorporating a reporting mechanism within a familiar app such as Facebook messenger, using bots. Since many refugees already utilise Facebook messenger to communicate, there is not only a higher level of trust in the app, but they already possess the knowledge of how to use the app. By including a bot in Facebook messenger, a refugee would be able to submit information about a human rights abuse by simply sending a message and responding to questions. These questions would be designed to prompt users for verifiable information, and would also record their geo-location and other important metadata needed to verify their report.

Nevertheless, another more pressing barrier to these new initiatives is the lack of Internet access. Although refugees have data plans from their home countries, they lose connectivity at sea and in rural areas, often only establishing connection through an international carrier once they have reached their destination. The places refugees live, such as camps or rural areas, often lack digital networks and infrastructure or have expensive connectivity available. This short clip created by BBC Media Action and their research with DAHLIA simulates the reality of a refugees access to internet as well as their use of social media and communication apps.  Due to the scarcity of Internet that refugees face on a daily basis, many mobile apps created in response to the refugee crisis will have little, if any, impact on the real situations of refugees.

Technology designed to aid refugees must therefore aim to fit into the daily lives, which often includes limited or no access to Internet and the afore-mentioned communication apps. It is however possible to produce scripts, which when combined with platforms and tools such as Twilio and Google Sheets, are able to act as SMS bots capable of surveying phones and collecting data, without the need for a data plan. Such an endeavour would nevertheless still leave open-ended questions in terms of security, dissemination and trust.

Any form of technology which aims to aid refugees must be directly related to problems they encounter on the ground while also be adaptable to other circumstances. Overall, it’s important that the design of such technologies result from a sustained relationship between local NGOs on the ground, refugees, and technologists.


For more information about refugee connectivity, see the UNHRC’s Introduction to Refugees and Connectivity.

The Whistle featured at the ‘Technology for the Bottom Billion’ Workshop

On Friday the 10th of June, The Whistle took part in a workshop organised by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge. The workshop brought together technological initiatives, which could potentially serve as alleviating responses to the plight of those who live on less than $2 a day.

In their own words ‘Most of the benefits of cutting edge science are enjoyed by the world’s wealthiest 10%, while the bottom 50% bear the brunt of the externalities that new technologies so often generate’. The Whistle was one out of a host of other initiatives, including “DigiTally” (simplifying offline payments), and “Networking for Development” (developing drones that deliver network access to hard-to-reach areas).

Our team’s greatest hopes and aspirations are that anyone with access to a phone or computer is able to report human rights violations, whilst simultaneously rendering this data more readily useful and reliable in a shorter amount of time, via the provision of a verification “front-end”. We have no illusions as to the strong impact of inequality, particularly in terms of the required level of digital literacy, but through extensive interviews and analysis of a wide range of diverse organisations and their respective civilian groups of focus, we can make some strides in aiding the human rights fact-finding process. The workshop was an opportunity to gather feedback and comments on the way The Whistle works, as well as an occasion to extend an invitation for collaboration.

If you have any comments or would like to collaborate, or even provide a potential test-case, we can be contacted on our website (thewhistle.org), via twitter (@whistlereporter), or directly to Dr Ella McPherson (em310@cam.ac.uk).

Human Rights in the Digital Age: CGHR Practitioner Paper #1

The Centre of Governance and Human Rights* at the University of Cambridge recently launched the inaugural paper in the ‘Human Rights in the Digital Age’ series, which aims at facilitating the sharing of knowledge and practices of human rights in a digital age.

The paper by Christoph Koettl (Senior Analyst, Amnesty International), was launched on the 8th of March and provides a framework for best practices in the use of citizen media. Specifically, it builds on the increasing importance of documenting human rights violations and aids the review and assessment of open source content.

Koettl’s framework has served as an invaluable source in designing The Whistle, particularly in terms of streamlining and speeding the verification of digital information. Through following a methodological approach that is familiar and accessible to new and seasoned practitioners, The Whistle can improve access and overview of existing tools and processes to aid fact-finding.


Download the practitioner paper and watch the presentation here

* A multi-disciplinary research centre for advancing thought and practice, critical to global justice and human-well-being. Read more here