Europe has been in the midst of turmoil since the beginning of 2015, where millions of refugees have flocked from the Middle East and Africa and have created a “refugee crisis” in this region.
What refugees require is immediate relief measures. It is hard to provide them with help that is available from multiple non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially when they are on the move.
In 2015, Shelley Taylor, a tech veteran and founder of trellyz, which is at present headquartered in London, was so moved by the “refugee crisis” that she wanted to reach out to the distressed refugees and make use of an innovative technology.
Since most refugees traveling to Europe relied on smartphones for GPS to navigate and to stay in touch with their families back home, Taylor wondered how she could create an app that enabled them to find the services they might need wherever they were on their journey, and whatever their legal status. “I spoke to many large NGOs and aid organizations to see if the app I had in mind would be helpful, and their answer was a resounding yes. So my team and I created the app – Refugee Aid or RefAid RefAid – over a weekend.”
What exactly is RefAid and how does it work?
RefAid is a software platform that consists of Content and Communication System (CMS) and a mobile app. The CMS enables the refugee aid organizations to manage their services by type and location so they can:
- Publish them on the app instantly, so refugees and migrants can find them
- Send geo-located push notifications to refugees, informing them of problems in the area (a fire in the camp), or activities (medical vans arriving in the area or social or educational activities coming up imminently)
- Find services of other organizations so they can refer migrants and refugees to other services that are nearby
- Collaborate and coordinate with aid organizations to improve efficiency, reduce duplication of services
- Communicate with individuals and groups of individuals in a single or multiple organizations by email and/or push notification
Built for the purpose of humanitarian cause, RefAid uses geolocation to show migrants, refugees, and aid workers a map of the closest services for food, shelter, healthcare, legal help, and more.
There are currently 400 non-profit organizations using the platform, and some of the most recognized names include MSF (Medecines sans frontieres), Doctors of the World, Caritas, the British Red Cross and other Red Cross organizations, Salvation Army and Save the Children.
The easy-to-use RefAid can be downloaded from the app store for free. Once downloaded, the app then shows the refugees all the services within a radius of 150 miles (180 kilometers). The app is currently available in English, Farsi and Arabic so they can find services nearest to them by type and location.
The services are categorized by type – Food, Health, Legal Services, Administration and Information, Education, Work and Volunteering, etc. The services provided by the aid organizations vary from those that are necessary for basic survival to work, volunteering and education for those who have sought or been given asylum in the country where they are now living.
Users see a pin showing where they are and then icons showing the services nearby. They can filter the services by language or type and zoom in on the map to find what they are looking for. When they find a service they are interested in, they can tap on the option “i” for additional information, including opening hours, more details about the service and a compass that leads them to directions to go from where they are to where the service is. The app has both location specific services with physical addresses, and services that provide an email address, phone number or website where there is no physical location.
More accessibility to database
The reason for RefAid’s success lies in Taylor’s fast-footed thinking. She realised very early that most aid organizations don’t have a comprehensive database showing which services they are providing or marked on the map indicating places the services are provided.
RefAid’s system, once the organizations have input their services (either individually or through a bulk uploads), enables them to manage their data more efficiently and helps to share the information across their local offices, throughout the region or across the country. Earlier, a lot of paperwork was required to create these database, but on RefAid system, Taylor says, “I think that the fact that the aid workers who use the system can also see all of the other services provided by other organizations, which help them refer migrants to services, has been an important motivator to use the system.”
Like in most success stories, there comes a rough patch, Taylor and her team also faced many challenges while rolling out the app, none of them technical.
Services from different aid organizations were often not integrated, resulting in duplication of effort and wasted resources. The lack of live data leads to inefficient aid delivery. Communication between NGOs, field service groups, and refugees, was a huge problem. In fact, the problem still exists.
RefAid started with taking on with this challenge. Although every organization contacted for the cause wanted to participate, they took a long time to gather the information of their services into a single place so they could upload them into the CMS. The first organization to join the platform had 60 offices in one country and it took them about two months to gather about 300 services onto an excel spreadsheet. That was really an eye opener for Taylor.
The second challenge was the processes of helping the organizations change their behavior while updating their services after they had approached RefAid. “It usually takes a few phone calls over several months to get them into the swing of it. It only takes about 30 seconds to add or modify a service, so it is not a matter of time, but mostly of getting them used to the system,” says Taylor.
The third challenge that RefAid is still grappling with is working with the organizations to support them in spreading the word to refugees to download the app. “We provide them with posters, flyers and little cards in many languages as PDFs but many of them don’t have budgets for printing them, so they rely on face-to-face meetings with refugees to spread the word. Over time, we’d like to establish a fund so we can print these for those who don’t have a budget,” says Taylor.
The fourth, but the biggest challenge is funding. RefAid has a small team and are in 14 countries. A part of the profit by trellyz is being used for RefAid. However, this is not enough. RefAid has partnerships with large NGOs in some of the countries where they handle all of the outreach and recruiting of other aid organizations. But in other countries the team dedicated to RefAid makes all of the initial contact and onboarding. So, the growth trajectory is slower than it could be.
RefAid is currently available in 14 countries including the US, UK, Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Malta and just recently, Turkey.
There are no real direct competitors. There are some similar apps in Germany, for individual cities. But there are no apps where the only services come from official aid organizations. Taylor has purposely focused on this to make sure that information given is correctsmart and only registered aid organizations/charities can provide services.
There are some apps that are crowdssourced, meaning anyone can add services. “We felt that there was too much danger in this, so we vet all of the organizations. If they are the major NGOs we already know them. But if they are small and we don’t know them, then we ask them to get one of the larger organizations to vet them for us,” says Taylor.
The app shows services to users based on where the user is and the location of the services. In addition, RefAid has geofencing so that users can see what services are available within 150 miles, rather than the whole world (this was suggested by the UNHCR to discourage migrants from traveling to where they think there might be more services in another country). The non-profits can send targeted communication to people in a certain area using geolocation as well, or to other members of RefAid network (other NGOs) based on where they are.
It is always difficult to communicate or provide services to people in a crisis situation. It becomes all the more difficult if they are on the move. In these situations, RefAids becomes an absolute necessity for those looking for immediate relief and the app helps even after that.