Maitland organizes workshop to address technology needs of refugees

Natural disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan and armed conflicts like the one in Syria cause people to flee from their homes. These population displacements are a growing problem, according to Carleen Maitland, an associate professor at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST). This displacement — being torn from precious possessions, familiar surroundings and community — creates needs for connectivity, communication and connectedness. To address these needs, Maitland is organizing a workshop to be held next month in South Africa, home to thousands of refugees displaced by Africa’s civil conflicts.

“The goal of the workshop is to create a research agenda for information communication technologies (ICTs) for refugees,” Maitland said.

The “Workshop on Robust Socio-technical Architectures in Support of Displaced Persons,” sponsored by the National Science Foundation, will be held on Dec. 4-5 at the University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa. The workshop will bring together scholars from computer, information and organization science, as well as communication, anthropology, geography/geographic information systems and migration studies, together with practitioners serving refugee communities. Weaving together interdisciplinary and international perspectives, and leveraging existing research on wireless and grid architectures, and specialized applications and interfaces, the workshop’s goal is to identify parameters for social theories and new technologies, ranging from innovative network architectures to applications supporting displaced people’s self-organization and information access.

The workshop will be held in advance of the joint ACM DEV Conference and the sixth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Development, both in Cape Town. Maitland says that she hopes the conversations started in the workshop will carry over into the conferences.

“We need the practitioners to give our research agenda a realistic grounding,” she said. “On the other hand, the researchers can help the practitioners understand what’s coming down the pike.”

Maitland’s expertise includes both critical and practical analyses of international and organizational contexts where information and communication technologies (ICTs) are used to foster economic and social development. Her work has been carried out in the U.S., Europe, Africa and the Middle East, while working with organizations such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Save the Children, and the U.S. State Department.
Maitland’s motivation for organizing the workshop, she said, stems from her experience in the Peace Corps while situated at the border between Malawi and Mozambique. During her assignment, she lived among 10,000 Mozambican refugees housed in camps operated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“I got to understand the whole refugee camp system,” she said.

Another impetus for the workshop, Maitland said, is the ongoing civil strife in Somalia that has caused an estimated 1 million Somalis to flee to Kenya, 400,000 of them in the Dadaab refugee camps. Recently, the World Food Programme, in the midst of a budget crisis, took the unprecedented step of cutting by 30 percent the food rations that it distributes twice a month to the refugees living in the camps. In November, the governments of Kenya, Somalia and the United Nations Refugee Agency signed a tripartite agreement for the repatriation of Somali refugees. Essentially, that means that many Somali refugees will be returning to a war-torn country because life in the camps is intolerable.

“We hope to provide support to people during these multiple displacements – from war, to refuge and back again. Clearly, the time was right (for the workshop),” Maitland said.

In addition to organizing the workshop, Maitland also involved her students in planning the agenda. Students in her “Information Technology in the International Context” class, as their semester project, created “use cases” to be used in the workshop. The use cases center around refugee information needs, one directly suggested by UNHCR. Two cases relevant for camp-based refugees address the need for portable medical records and the need to track individuals in a camp to ensure against human trafficking. A third use case, relevant for urban refugees such as the thousands located in Cairo, Egypt, addresses the need to find UNHCR-approved clinics. Each use case describes the information need and proposes a solution based on appropriate technology.

“During the workshop, the use cases will be discussed by interdisciplinary teams as a means of grounding the participants in current and real-world problems,” Maitland said. 

According to Maitland, much of the effort to support information access in displacement favors the organizations charged with their care, as opposed to serving the refugees themselves. For example, Turkish camps, which hold many Syrian refugees, employ iris recognition technology-an automated method of biometric identification that uses mathematical pattern-recognition techniques on video images of the irises of an individual's eyes, whose complex random patterns are unique and can be seen from some distance—to keep records of refugees. ICTs are also used to help the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to maintain resource control in camps and for logistical purposes.

Despite the fact that service providers are utilizing new technologies, Maitland said, the provision of network and information access remains a vexing problem for the displaced persons themselves. The conditions of refugee camps and disaster sites provide challenging use cases for wireless networks, applications and devices. Displacement also creates extreme resource scarcity, dependency, geographic change and conflicts between individuals and organizations. Some of the most urgent technological needs of refugees include technologies to enhance emergency response, social media/Internet connectivity, and access to mobile phones.  The barriers to developing systems that meet the refugees’ needs, she said, include the sense of temporary existence and rapidly changing conditions in camps.

“The systems and social theories we develop are going to have to be dynamic,” Maitland said.

The overall goal of the workshop, she said, is to “create a critical mass of researchers who have an interest in this topic,” leading to subsequent research projects that would examine those issues in more detail. Refugees create an “extreme use case” for technological development, she added, due to issues of mobility and the physical context of their surroundings.

“If we can create technology that meets their needs, it can have very broad applicability,” Maitland said.

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Last Updated November 26, 2013