Imagine you’re on the run, alone in a strange country, with few possessions and little knowledge about what’s coming next. War and violence have forced you to leave your home and old life behind. You’re looking for food, shelter and help, but the information available is limited and helping hands are few and far between.
Since 2015, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa have journeyed to Europe to seek asylum in the hope of a better life. After risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean, they often land in overwhelmed reception sites and overflowing refugee camps where they struggle to get the answers they need to reach their final destination.
A new source of help is now at hand. Refugee Text, a new Copenhagen-based social startup, has developed a chatbot to help refugees access the information they need through SMS.
Kåre Solvåg and Caroline Arvidsson – two of the three graduate students from the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID) that developed Refugee Text – explain that their goal is to inform as many people as possible, with as much information as possible.
“Through our research we’ve found that refugees have walked up and down streets in camps, unaware that there was an activity centre, a food hall or a help desk next door,” Arvidsson said.
They found that most information within refugee camps and communities is currently spread through word of mouth, flyers, mobile services, factsheets, household visits, television broadcasts, random encounters or loudspeaker announcements.
“But our field research found that it simply wasn’t effective enough,” says Solvåg. “Information is essential because it allows refugees to fully know their rights, understand what services are available and how to access help”.
Solvåg started working on Refugee Text in October 2015 in response to the refugee crisis that had escalated over the previous summer. He did six weeks of field research in a number of hotspots in different European countries, working with activist groups and asylum experts, and visiting community centres and border regions where he observed and interviewed volunteers and refugees.
“I soon realised that there was a huge problem – there was lack of information, wrong information, misleading rumours and situations where refugees were told one thing and volunteers another. I realised that something had to be done”.
Together they developed a chatbot that is supplied by knowledge from aid organisations that is then passed on to refugees over SMS.
“Almost all asylum seekers have a mobile phone, which makes it the most obvious tool to use, because it’s something everyone has,” says Arvidsson, adding that a chatbot is the perfect tool to deliver information as quickly as possible – and to as many people as possible – in an emergency.
The system is quite simple. An organisation inputs information, which is then held in a customised database. Refugees who text the service are first asked to select their language, which they do by responding to the automated text message. Afterwards, they can navigate to the information relevant to them by continuously responding to simple text messages that provide them with increasingly precise answers about their specific situation.
Aid organisations can continually update the information, which ensures that users always receive the most up to date information. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) even wants to upload the chatbot to their website, as an alternative to their own hotline.
“And we can distribute information as soon as a border opens or closes and as soon as the EU makes a rule change,” says Solvåg.
Arvidsson adds that in Greece, for example, they found that some aid organisations and volunteers withheld information from refugees, either because the information might complicate their journey, or because they thought it wasn’t worth the bother because the rules were constantly changing. Refugee Text won’t curate information in this way.
“We believe that everyone has a right to all information. Our voice, or the organisation’s voice through our tool, is meant to be like a very good friend on their journey,” says Arvidsson.
A major advantage of the chatbot is the number of people it can reach. Not everyone has access to the internet, which limits the reach of an app or web-based service. It also alleviates the pressure of aid workers who are currently the primary source of information for refugees – and often spend a lot of time simply repeating the same information over and over again. By providing an alternative source of information, staff and aid workers are freed to work on other areas related to the welfare of refugees.
The trio is currently Designing a chatbot specifically for the 60,000 refugees who are currently stuck in Greece because of the refugee deal the EU made with Turkey. They have found partners to supply the information, but currently lack funding. M
Refugee Text has launched a crowdfunding campaign. For more information, please visit: bit.ly/refugeetext