Some tech efforts target the refugee crisis

Nov 25, 2015, 2:30 PM EST
Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. Naval Photographic Center.
Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. Naval Photographic Center.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, some Silicon Valley-based companies have been criticized for their reluctance to hand over user data and to collaborate with governments which seek to access potential communication among terrorists. Governments are looking at tech developers to "open their doors" to user data that they claim will help with counterterrorism efforts. These criticisms of the tech world's implicit role in terrorist violence, like the attacks in France, have somewhat eclipsed Silicon Valley's -- and other tech groups' -- roles in aiding in the global refugee crisis.

Take Techfugees, a group launched in September by Mike Butcher of Techcrunch that will be hosting a conference on December 2nd in London. Butcher said the group’s goal is to get the tech community involved and engaged with the problems faced by refugees. He noted on his Facebook page: “Techfugees aims to create LINKS with existing refugee groups, charities, NGOs and refugees themselves to create a BRIDGE between these two worlds."

The group has hundreds of members and is at the beginning stages of trying to merge the tech world with the government/policy one to see how technological expertise can contribute to alleviating the growing refugee problem. The Techfugee site notes that the response is going global; hackathons are in the works for later this year:

"A number of Techfugees-supported Hackathons have taken place in the last few weeks since the Techfugees movement was started, including in Oslo, Venice and Warsaw. Other[s] are planned for Munich, Berlin and Sydney, among others in the works."

Facebook has made some efforts to get in on the aid side of the refugee crisis, namely by launching a project to provide internet access to United Nations refugee camps. A partial offshoot of its project, the company will partner with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the world body's refugee agency. In September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that “Facebook is in a unique position to help maintain” the lifeline of connectivity for refugees — something that has proven to be vital for those making dangerous passages out of Syria and elsewhere.

Google has also stepped up to try to aid both countries taking in refugees and refugees themselves. The company built a mobile-friendly site with information about shelter, medical facilities, emergency locations, registration, and currency exchange, in addition to updating its translation service for new refugees in Europe trying to understand local signs. 

The company also launched a “Crisis Info Hub” to help refugees by making needed information, such as transport and lodging tips, more easily accessible via smartphone. In October, Google's blog detailed its latest efforts to join with international bodies to aid in this crisis.

Both Facebook and Google are also collaborating with international NGOs to further their projects. While some of the efforts may seem negligible, given the extent of the crisis, any move forward helps.