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Digital Technologies, in Refugee Camps? Seeking innovative solutions to address today’s Grand Challenges

For months now we have been watching news about people fleeing their homes in Syria,

Afghanistan or South Sudan. And the recent displacement of over 600,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh just adds to the official statistics of 65.6 million people displaced, finding themselves in over-crowded refugee camps across the world.



Digital technologies, in Refugee Camps?

In seeking answers to one of society’s most pressing social challenges, eyes are turning to the tech sector. Former President Barack Obama for instance prompts Silicon Valley to find better technologies to address the Syrian refugee crises. And they do! In Jordan for instance Syrian refugees can access their cash via IRIS scanning technology at local ATMs, enhancing security and promoting dignity for affected people. In other parts of the country aid organizations are piloting distance learning since a couple of years to enhance access to higher education. In Rwanda I for instance met a young refugee student who is able to earn a US degree through online learning courses, without ever leaving the camp.  Another example is Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plans to support internet access in refugee camps using drones.


Crowdsourcing Platforms for Innovative Ideas

While such efforts have drastically improved living situations in some camps or for some populations, the sector is still waiting for the next big innovation, possibly through crowd-sourcing innovation. UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, is currently piloting their ‘Ideas Challenge’. The way they go about this is to use an online crowd-sourcing platform to jointly generate novel solutions and ideas across the aid sector. As a first step, UNHCR teams identify crucial challenges which are posted on the platform and everyone is invited to submit an idea on how to tackle the specific challenge. Next, these ideas are voted on and vetted by the online community, as well as a panel of academic and practice experts, with the final idea being prototyped and tested in practice. The winning idea of the very first challenge on #OvercomingLanguageBarriers, suggesting a combination of traditional forms of learning and tablets pre-loaded with language-learning apps, is now implemented in Greece.


In the context of global social challenges, digital technologies can provide innovative solutions, and are certainly crucial to identify them.



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