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Artificial Intelligence and the Refugee Crisis

A team of grad students put their design skills to work developing a chatbot to service humanitarian organizations responding to the refugee crisis. Founder Ciaran Duffy talks to Refugees Deeply about how it works.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A mobile-phone charging station at an informal refugee camp in Greece. Aranka Szabo/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

There is a frequent presence in the thousands of images of refugees arriving on the shores of Europe: phones. They have been a lifeline on hazardous sea crossings and a first resort when relaying news to faraway relatives.

Ubiquitous smartphones have also been a reminder that this wave of migration is happening in a technological age. The centrality of phones to the refugee crisis persuaded a group of master’s students in Copenhagen, Denmark to put their knowledge of automatic message services to wider use.

Among them was designer Ciaran Duffy, now an honors graduate from the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID).

While chatbots – of the kind deployed to chat with customers by Microsoft – have become a popular subject for fretful discussions about artificial intelligence, Duffy and his team of fellow grad students saw the potential for a charitable startup.

Duffy spoke with Refugees Deeply about launching a startup, Refugee Text, despite being “something of a skeptic when it comes to tech and the refugee crisis.”

Refugees Deeply: How does Refugee Text work? Are you an app, a publisher, a platform?

Ciaran Duffy: We are a chatbot management system (CMS) for humanitarian organizations. We allow them to make information available on demand to any refugee with a phone. As a people-centered design organization, we tailor the CMS to fit the needs of different humanitarian organizations and to be deployed successfully in a variety of contexts, from urban host communities to camps and temporary settlements.

Refugee Text

Refugee Text

The flow of information in the service is quite simple: Messages are input into the system online by an expert humanitarian organization. Translators are then notified to map them across to other languages. Messages can be sent over SMS and chat applications such as Facebook Messenger, Viber and Telegram. Refugees send the word “hi” to sign up to the service.

Using simple commands, they can respond to automated text messages to receive information. As the system learns more about the user, the answers become more and more personalized, taking into account things like their nationality, gender, stage in the asylum process etc.

Refugees Deeply: Where does your funding come from? What kind of support do you see Refugee Text needing to expand to more countries?

Duffy: In January 2016 we were accepted into the NEST incubator at Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. This gave us a small amount of funding, to work on the idea and try to bring it to life. We conducted a lot of research around Europe, held workshops and built many prototypes.

NEST has also given us access to a great network of advisers from the design, humanitarian and business sectors. We’ve also been working at the Migration Hub in Berlin, where we’ve received mentorship on how to make the service a sustainable business. This has helped us learn how to turn an idea into something that can hold value over many years. We’re not trying to survive off of funding forever; we have built something that can make overworked and underfunded humanitarian organizations more effective, and save them money.

Right now, we’ve reached the end of the funding that we have received from CIID. It’s hard for humanitarian organizations to buy into new ideas and innovative solutions in the middle of crises, especially when the benefits are mostly theoretical. That’s why we launched a crowd-funding campaign to roll out the service in Greece.

Refugees Deeply: How do people in refugee communities find out about you and use your service?

Duffy: We tailor the service to fit the needs of different contexts, so we will have a good idea before we launch a service of whether something like Facebook advertising is going to work, or if humanitarian organizations already have a database of phone numbers to reach out to refugees.

Refugee Text

Refugee Text

Since we started working on the service, we’ve experimented with a lot of different ways of onboarding refugees (getting them signed up and underway). It can be anything from posters and stickers around a camp or host community, to onboarding translators, humanitarian volunteers and community leaders in person, who in turn onboard other refugees to the service.

Refugees Deeply: Talk us through your most effective campaign to date.

Duffy: The largest campaign we’ve had so far is with the service we have on our own Facebook page. It provides information on the early stages of the asylum processes in Germany, Denmark and Sweden. We have three legal advisers, who each take responsibility for the information in each of the countries that they specialize in. It prepares refugees for their first interview.

It explains to them what they should prepare, what documents they need, as well as referring them to an organization that can provide them with free face-to-face legal counseling. It also gives refugees a lot of advice normally given by lawyers and counselors, such as how to stay positive during the long waiting periods, what the police and humanitarian organizations can and can’t do for them, as well as what to do in case of distress.

Refugees Deeply: What’s wrong with the current ways in which NGOs and other organizations do outreach and deliver information?

Duffy: Humanitarian organizations are overworked and underfunded. It’s a sad reality which means those who have the most trustworthy information are often unable to distribute it effectively. Until now, printed media has been the main form of communication. This is a very costly method of distributing information. It’s not a dynamic medium, meaning that you can’t update a poster or pamphlet without reprinting it.

With online communications and websites, information is either out of date or in a register of language that you can’t understand. At other times, up-to-date information is available online but it’s buried inside a lengthy PDF document.

Some organizations have experimented with apps and while this a great step forward, the maintenance and startup costs required for applications can be a large obstacle.

Refugees Deeply: How can data from services like yours be used to better manage the response to mass migration and refugee issues?

Duffy: Most organizations are highly accountable for how they spend money. Information they can provide to their donors on their beneficiaries, their needs and how they responded to them is highly sought after. Refugee Text uses simple data analytics to provide organizations with statistics and figures on their beneficiaries, what information they’re requesting and what referrals they are receiving. This can be instrumental in how organizations allocate funding and resources.

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