Yahoo For Good Asks Tough Questions About Technology’s Role in the Refugee Crisis

On Tuesday Nov. 3rd, Grace Chung from Yahoo invited me to speak to a group of Engineers and Technologists for their quarterly “Hack Lunch” – which is meant to be a brainstorming session for quarterly hackathons that Yahoo puts on for the company a few times a year. She explained that with all the news coverage of the Syrian Refugee Crisis – many Yahoo employees had asked what the company was doing to make a difference. It became apparent that there was enough interest from their Engineers to introduce the idea of doing a Hack Day for Refugees.

Like many of you, I’m well aware that technology (in this case – web and mobile technology) may not be the first priority when we’re talking about addressing needs in a crisis situation, but being that my responsibility is to help bridge gaps between the high-tech community, and communities that work in social impact, I do think that there are plenty of examples of technology serving as a catalyst for real change. In fact, during the presentations at Yahoo, Grace showed the room a brief news clip that explained that smart phones have allowed many Syrians to find out which border crossings were open, what agencies to contact when they got there, and where to go for help. Smart phones have also allowed them to stay connected to relatives and friends while making an extremely difficult journey across land and sea. The ability to get realtime information while in transit was not something that was available 30 years ago – and so as simple as it seems, this ability to access information has become crucial to those faced with displacement – and it is in this regard, that technology has a place in helping people.

My role at the Hack Lunch was to talk about social impact technology. Having personally tutored a group of Burmese Refugees in Oakland last year, I’ve seen firsthand how important it is for non-English speakers to be able to understand and work with computers and smartphones. My colleague in this work was Nwe Oo – a Burmese refugee herself, and a prominent advocate for refugee issues for the Rakhine community. Nwe’s accomplishments are vast, but some of her achievements include working with the United Nations and UN Women to advocate for social causes, being a social entrepreneur through her own business Weaving Through Change, and being the proud mother of three boys. I was honored to bring Nwe with me to Yahoo to talk about refugee needs after resettlement.

When we arrived at Yahoo, we met Olivia Khalili who runs the Yahoo for Good team. She kindly treated us to lunch where we had the opportunity to meet the third person who would be speaking with us that day – Susan McPherson who sits on the Board for USA for UNHCR. Nwe, Susan, and I were the three speakers introduced to Yahoo for Good for the Refugee Hack Lunch – and I had the distinct responsibility of speaking first! I may have overdone it a bit for a 5 minute talk, but I had prepared 10 slides that day to quickly address how important it was to do user-testing during a social impact Hackathon (getting the end user in the room during the brainstorming and prototyping process), and that social impact Hackathons should always have a debrief after the event so that Engineers can improve their understanding of the unique challenges and successes of building technology for good.

After I talked about the role of SocialCoding4Good in building out a strong Social Impact Technology community, Nwe took the floor to talk about the needs that Refugees have after being resettled. She spoke specifically about the thousands of refugees in the Bay Area that have very immediate needs learning how to use technology, and obvious impediments with English language skills. Nwe’s main point was that digital technology now has the ability to provide a world class education to people in remote regions – something that she is hoping she can get the tech community more involved in. Nwe also emphasized that while attempting to address technological needs for Syrian refugees might be ambiguous or daunting, there are clear opportunities to help closer to home – Engineers can definitely help address the needs of the many refugees who have settled in Oakland.

Susan was the final speaker, and really rounded out the panel. She was able to directly describe what UNHCR was doing in the field (including the great work of UNHCR Innovation Labs) – and presented evidence that the agency is making strides to provide more Internet access to refugees in their camps. One primary account that she described was work she had seen where technology was used to educate a select group of refugees in the camps to then go out and educate another group. I’m a big fan of local empowerment, and definitely see why tech companies like Facebook ( are committed to going into these remote places and getting them wired. Susan also talked about encouraging Entrepreneurship in refugee camps – which I think is also important.

In fact, in 2009, I spent a few weeks in an Internally Displaced Persons camp outside the town of Gilgil, Kenya. The camp had about 10,000 – 20,000 inhabitants, which is pretty small compared to the camps in Jordan for the Syrian Refugees. Even in Kenya though – I was able to see innovation and entrepreneurship everywhere I went. I met teenagers who had built a full bench press out of logs, and I met a man who had used old tires to create a spinning saw operated by foot that could cut bones into fine jewelry, which he made amazing necklaces out of.

Grace Chung helped us summarize the points we made. She emphasized how important it was to be able to access information on digital networks and encouraged Yahoo Engineers to think about this fact while building apps for change. I have to agree – the ability for communication networks to provide access to information seems to be one of the most compelling uses of technology in the field. Smartphones can provide important location information, help individuals receive reports of what’s happening all over the camp, and help the camp stay connected to the outside world. It’s also often heartwarming for those who have smartphones to be able to advocate, write, tell stories, take pictures, and spread news of their own personal experiences to the greater internet community. Is technology the only need in a refugee camp? No, but it does empower individuals to share and access data in realtime, and this is an opportunity that people in remote places never have had before.

I’d like to thank Yahoo for Good for inviting me as a representative from SocialCoding4Good to talk about social impact technology. I can’t wait to hear how their Hack For Refugees event goes, and to follow companies like Yahoo and Facebook in their awesome endeavor to help refugees stay connected. Perhaps education can be provided to those who must spend years of their lives living in these camps in the hopes that someday those individuals can be better prepared for resettlement – and like Nwe, use their newfound knowledge and access to go back and empower more refugees to learn how to change their own lives for the better.

Deep Datta
Developer Community Manager
Benetech Labs | SC4G Technology Serving Humanity

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