“The tech community can save lives”

A journalist explains how start-ups can improve the day-to-day existence of refugees and help make their dreams a reality.

The take-away

  • The Techfugees Initiative includes several projects, including MeshPoint: a rugged, weather-resistant device that provides wireless Internet access outdoors in crisis areas.
  • The initiative is working on projects that will enable large numbers of people to become involved.

As the refugee crisis spread across Europe, an initiative known as “Techfugees” began to organise donation campaigns, conferences and hackathons to bring together some of the tech industry’s most brilliant minds in Europe, the U.S. and Australia. The project was launched by Mike Butcher, editor-at-large for the website TechCrunch.

TECHNOLOGIST: Why did you launch Techfugees?

Mike Butcher: When I was a child, my father took me to a military base where the British government was providing shelter for refugees. I played with the children there, and it was an experience that really touched me. When the refugee crisis exploded last year and I saw children dying at sea, I wanted to bring the community together to figure out new solutions.

T. How did you get started?

M.B. In September 2015, I created a Facebook group and Twitter feed. The next day, 100 people had joined the group, then 200 more the following day. Nine days later, my friends and I were organising our first conference and a hackathon with 400 participants. Then we got organisations to participate, such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Red Cross, and gained the support of tech companies.

T. What was the feedback on the web?

M.B. It was unbelievable. The word Techfugees swept through social media and began to take on a life of its own. People we didn’t know organised their own events using the name.

T. What are your favourite projects so far?

M.B. There are so many. MeshPoint is a rugged, weather-resistant device that provides wireless Internet access outdoors in crisis areas. Migreat is a platform for migrants seeking asylum in Europe. It compares parameters such as each country’s refugee acceptance rate, labour laws and visa processing times. Then there’s GeeCycle, which collects unused smartphones for refugees.

T. What are your next goals?

M.B. We’re working on projects that will enable people to get involved easily and in large numbers. In addition to our activities on Facebook and Twitter, we have also created the Slack Techfugees community, which anyone can join without needing an invitation, and Hackpad, a collaborative platform for organising projects. We also publish a weekly newsletter which is sent to more than 1,000 subscribers. The newsletter talks about the tech tools that can help refugees or the agencies that work with them.

T. What is your strength?

M.B. We bridge the gap between the tech community, where everything goes ultra-fast, and NGOs, where things move slowly. Many organisations view us as the best vehicle for interacting with people from start-ups. The various platforms we use are really useful.

T. What’s your main challenge?

M.B. Perfecting our database of existing products to keep people from duplicating efforts. There are at least five to 10 “Airbnbs for refugees”. We also encourage everyone, both agencies and start-ups, to develop in open source so that people share and work together.

Mike Butcher, Techfugees