Can You Find Me Now? Refugees United Goes Mobile to Help Reunite Refugees

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Oct 28, 2010.
As part of a pilot project in Uganda, Refugees United is using mobile tools to help connect refugees who have been displaced by war, persecution, and natural disasters. Refugees Unitedis a Danish NGO that designed and runs a web-based program to help people directly reconnect with missing loved ones. For the mobile pilot, it is working in conjunction with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), mobile phone maker EricssonMTN, a mobile telecommunications company in Africa and specifically MTN Uganda, as well as other partner organizations on the ground.

The mobile project allows refugees to register details about themselves via SRefugees United in UgandaMS and to be matched with family members who are looking for them. The mobile pilot has been written about by many media organizations, including a blog thatrefers to it as “the social network that is more important than Facebook.” Refugees United also received a $2.6 million grant from Omidyar Network to expand operations “by augmenting its technology platforms, recruiting developers, and developing new partnerships with international refugee agencies.”

Mobile spoke with Christopher Mikkelsen, half of the two-brother team behind Refugees United, to hear the latest about the project, which is nearly three months into the six-month mobile pilot.

Why Mobile?

Five years ago, Christopher and David Mikkelsen helped a young Afghan refugee to locate his family. As they went through the structures available at the time, they realized that although lots of people wanted to help, there was little concrete information to draw from.

“Nobody had established a global database, nobody had tried to work on a standard that every organization could connect to and work with,” Mikkelsen said. “More importantly, we found that nobody had provided refugees themselves with a system where they, on their own terms, could enter information and search across conflicts and borders.”

From this, the Refugees United website was launched. But, many refugees often have limited or no access to computers. Refugees United, which has offices in East Africa, also noticed that refugees who came in to the office had difficulty understanding how the web platform worked.

What do they understand? Mobile phones.

Mobiles are an intricate link between refugees and the world, Mikkelsen said. “For them, it’s a system they understand, and it’s something that they trust inherently.” For the mobile pilot, 12 UNHCR workers are visiting camps, mobile phones in hand, to help refugees register for the service via basic handsets.

Mikkelsen said they are focusing on outreach between two groups: One is organizations on the ground who are in place and understand local needs. The other is refugees themselves. The core of the project is to enable refugees to become stakeholders in the process of searching for missing family members.

Who Has Been Signing Up, and How?

Refugees United and its partners set out to complete 1000 registrations during the six-month pilot. It ended up doing 1,100 registrations in “a couple of weeks.” On top of that, registrations are also being done via the web and mobile in other places. When this is included, more than 5,000 people have been added to the platform over the last six and a half weeks.

“For us, as a tracing agency working with the absolute bottom of the pyramid, to add more than 5,000 people on to the platform in such a short period of time is astounding,” Mikkelsen said.

So, how does it work?

The mobile project uses a platform that was built from the ground up in partnership with Ericsson. Refugees can use basic mobile handsets and are not restricted to a specific network provider. They can register using either SMS or mobile Internet.

Tomas Krag, chief technology officer for Refugees United, explained that the mobile platform is based on Ericsson Universal Messaging Gateway, which connects to the Refugees United backend/database through an open API. The SMS-based tool is available only in countries where partners Refugees United and Ericsson have an agreement with a mobile operator, while the WAP-solution is available globally. For the “mobile-savvy” audience, Krag said, it might be worth noting that the WAP-solution is not in fact WAP, but rather a XHTML implementation that works on any current phone with a browser, starting from a USD 40 phone such as the Nokia 1680. It’s also worth noting that the mobile solutions are still in a pilot test-phase, and due to security concerns over the SMS-based solution, Refugees United does not yet have a roll-out plan for SMS-based solution beyond the pilot in Uganda and Kenya.

The tools developed by Refugees United (the back-end, front-end, and the website) are built on open source tools. The group is using a Jboss application server, PostgreSQL database, and Drupal, as well as a stack of other open source tools in supporting functions (Pootle translation server, Piwik user tracking, Apache), Krag said. The code isn’t currently released under an OS license.

In addition to work in Kenya, there are plans to develop smartphone apps in the near future. But for now, development revolves around the refugees, so the focus is on basic feature phones. Along these lines, Refugees United is also looking into adding audio components to the service.

The mobile platform for the pilot is in English, but Madi and Swahili languages were just added. The Refugees United web platform is available in 23 languages.

Refugees United in Uganda

 Challenges and Successes? Is Too Much Information a Problem?

One success of the mobile platform is the inherent trust associated with a familiar technology. But, Mikkelsen said, “We don’t want too much trust. We want refugees to show vigilance all the time.”

Safety and trust are major components of the pilot. The crux of the system is ensuring that refugees provide enough information where they can be found by family, but also ensuring that they don’t give away too much information that might put them in harms way, Mikkelsen said.

Some refugees register with full name and location. Others use nicknames and descriptions of scars. Some register with birth village, region, country, or names of preachers, teachers, or imams. At every step of registration, Refugees United reminds people that this is an open platform.

Another success for the pilot is the strength of the partnerships involved with the program. MTN Uganda has been an integral partner, Mikkelsen said. The mobile operator provided free access for refugees and enabled Refugees United to advertise and provide information on the service.

MTN also provided local knowledge. “Mobile phone companies, if anyone, truly understand how these refugees communicate, because refugees are, often times, on their networks,” Mikkelsen said.

Mikkelsen brings up another point in that as Refugees United continues to develop the service, more and more people will likely have access to mobile phones. “Time is essentially working with us here.”

Photos courtesy Refugees United.

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