Mobile technology for mobile populations: How cellphones are redefining the Syrian refugee crisis

By leveraging mobile tech to deliver services for mobile populations, aid providers can significantly increase their reach and impact — without needing to drastically overhaul their mission, vision or approach to working on the ground. Photo by: Japanexperterna / CC BY-SA

Tweet it. Share it. Comment. Repost. The Syrian refugee crisis is the first of its kind to be accessible on a 5-inch screen, and trackable in real time via GPS. Like few other global events before it, the displacement of more than 4 million people has unfolded on cellphones, on an unprecedented scale: Refugees in transit use smartphone maps to check their location, rely on messenger apps such as WhatsApp to update friends and family, and snap selfies with their phones’ cameras.

The high rate of mobile use among refugees has served as a wake-up call to aid and development implementers, marking, for many, a first-ever shift in their attitudes about technology. Organizations are no longer sitting on the sidelines while private tech companies donate equipment and expertise. Instead, they’re rolling up their sleeves and launching mobile apps or real-time information services aimed at helping refugees find everything from shelter to legal advice.

These initiatives are turning the traditional model of aid (often criticized for its focus on one-way handouts) into an iterative, interactive experience — terminology more often used to describe Facebook than field clinics.

This change prompts a key question: Can aid implementers truly operate like Silicon Valley startups?

SoukTel’s work to help Syrians on the move may provide some insight. Last year, Souktel partnered with the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative to launch a first-ever cellphone-based legal information service for refugees in Turkey. For many families fleeing Damascus or Aleppo, arrival in a new and unfamiliar country can bring specific challenges: The only non-Arabic-speaking state in the region, Turkey’s language and legal system are unfamiliar to many Syrians — leaving them vulnerable to basic rights violations. Clear, accurate information about refugee entitlements is also hard to find. As a result, large numbers of Syrians struggle without basic support; children remain out of school, and families’ socio-economic security is put at risk.

The mobile information service aimed to tackle this challenge, through simple text-message interactions accessible to any refugee with a mobile — be it a smartphone or a basic device. Syrians can send legal questions via SMS to a hotline at any time, with text messages received and analyzed through a secure analytics platform. After being sorted, tagged by topic, and translated into Turkish, the requests are sent to Turkish lawyers — who offer real-time advice via a secure SMS channel, with translation back into Arabic so the Syrians can easily understand the content. A mobile outreach campaign marked the service’s launch — promoting local legal awareness sessions and offering short tips on basic rights, such as: “Did you know that with registration, your children are entitled to free schooling? Text the service to learn more.”

“By leveraging mobile tech to deliver services for mobile populations, aid providers can significantly increase their reach and impact.”

—  Jacob Korenblum, president and CEO, SoukTel

Using technology to solve real-time problems through standard donor channels sounds impossible. Crises are urgent; agile software development is best known for rapid prototyping “sprints.” Funder procurement, meanwhile, can take longer than a year to run its course. In the case of the legal service, however, three factors helped us drive progress and streamline process.

First, our implementing partners understood the potential of technology to create impact at scale. ABA-ROLI isn’t a scrappy young tech company; it’s a 138-year-old nonprofit that works to advance the rule of law within the United States and around the world. Yet, their project team recognized the value of working outside traditional comfort zones and embracing new tech-based solutions.

Second, we worked directly with end users on the ground in Turkey to design, test and relentlessly improve the mobile service. This is a key strength that development implementers offer: In many settings, they’re already integrated into local communities and operate with crucial credibility. As a result, local “beta testing” of new tech solutions can happen quickly and reliably.

Finally, we built for scale and security from day one — recognizing that the daily users of the service would be vulnerable people in vulnerable circumstances. In the tech sector, these traits are often touted as pillars of “enterprise-grade” software — solutions that work robustly among large numbers of consumers. Aid and development implementers have long been delivering “enterprise-grade” assistance; it’s just been presented in a different context.

In short, aid providers can easily operate like Silicon Valley startups during events like the current refugee crisis. Some are already partnering with Bay Area tech companies: Last year, the International Rescue Committee, in partnership with Google and global nonprofit Mercy Corps, launched, a mobile-first site that offers location-specific content to refugees arriving in Europe. Available in multiple languages including Arabic, Pashto, Farsi and Greek, it’s an open source resource that evolves regularly as new content is added.  

The surge in cellphone use among the communities we serve shouldn’t act as a deterrent; it should be a catalyst. By leveraging mobile tech to deliver services for mobile populations, aid providers can significantly increase their reach and impact — without needing to drastically overhaul their mission, vision or approach to working on the ground.

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Jacob Korenblum

    Jacob Korenblum is the president and CEO of Souktel, a company that designs and delivers custom mobile solutions that connect job seekers with employers, and help development implementers get information to and from the people they serve. Jacob leads Souktel's growing team, building on his past experience managing economic development and emergency relief projects for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Canadian development agency.