IST researchers explore technology use in Syrian refugee camp

The Syrian Civil War has caused millions of citizens to flee their homeland, but many refugees have persevered and are seeking to rebuild their lives. Researchers at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) recently traveled to a thriving Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, where they surveyed people as part of a study they are conducting on how  the refugees are appropriating technology into their daily lives.

“Jordan is an interesting place in that it has been welcoming of refugees, first from Iraq and now from Syria,” said Carleen Maitland, an associate professor at the College of IST.

Maitland, along with her graduate student advisee, Ying Xu, visited the Zaatari camp, Jordan’s largest facility for Syrian refugees, in early January. The trip was part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to catalyze collaboration with a Jordanian computer scientist, Nijad al Najdawi, to enhance the use of information technology by refugees and their service providers. In this exploratory visit, they studied internet and mobile phone use in the camp, which was founded in 2012 and provides a temporary home to about 100,000 refugees.

Results of the survey show a high degree of mobile  phone and internet use, with 86 percent of youth in their sample owning a mobile handset, and more than half using the internet either once or multiple times per day. There is also a high level of interest in a wide variety of internet based services, particularly social media and news.

The research that Maitland, Xu and their colleagues are conducting is part of an initiative by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to collect data on wireless infrastructure and internet use by refugees. The agency, which was established in 1950 by the UN General Assembly, is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide.

Maitland’s research in organizational informatics examines information technology use and data flows in and between humanitarian organizations. 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 (UNCTAD), the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), Save the Children, and the U.S. State Department.

[CM1]  The war in Syria has displaced more than 6.5 million Syrians, with more than 3 million having fled to countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq.

Despite the dire conditions that many Syrians are facing, Maitland said that upon arriving at the Zaatari camp in Jordan, the researchers discovered a vibrant and resilient community. Children in the camp are formally educated and able to receive a Jordanian high school diploma. In addition, about 3,000 businesses have been set up in the camp, including barber shops, wedding gown rentals, vegetable stalls and even a travel agency and pizza delivery service. Use of information technology by the humanitarian organizations is expanding rapidly, including biometrics, electronic vouchers, and social media. UNHCR maintains a database of iris scans of all refugees, who purchase food using UN-issued debit cards containing their monthly food allowance at point-of-sale terminals at two grocery stores in the camp. UNHCR also operates a Twitter account for the camp, providing updates and human interest stories. Following the camp’s Twitter feed has allowed the research team to keep up with timely news, including the past winter’s snow storms.

Xu, a first-year doctoral student, said that the Jordan trip was her first time in the Middle East, and that she was impressed by the hospitality of the Zaatari refugees.

“The culture of the Syrian people is amazing,” she said. “They have sadness (about the war) but are resilient.”

Maitland, Xu and their colleagues collected data via paper and in-person surveys about refugees’ mobile phone and internet use. The researchers gathered data from roughly 270 refugees, Xu said, 100 of which were administered face-to-face. In their data collection efforts, they were assisted by three refugees, all of whom have university degrees in English literature and who held positions as high school English teachers in Syria prior to the war. The close working relationship has now spilled over to social media, with Facebook connections between the refugees and some members of the research team.  

While the researchers are still processing the results, Maitland said, so far they have uncovered some surprising insights.

“In some cases, mobile phone and internet use among refugees is greater in the camps than when they were living in Syria,” she said.

Possible reasons for the increased technology use in the camp, Maitland said, are the lower prices for internet and mobile phone in Jordan as compared to Syria, being freed from the censorship of the Basher-al Assad regime, and the fact that many Syrians, while living in Syria, had less free time due to work and school, which they miss. Similar to youth around the world, young people in the Zaatari camp, Maitland noted, are particularly avid mobile phone and internet users. Communication tools such as WhatsApp are very popular as are information sources such as Google.

Results of the survey show a high degree of mobile  phone and internet use, with 86 percent of youth in their sample owning a mobile handset, and more than half using the internet either once or multiple times per day. There is also a high level of interest in a wide variety of internet based services, particularly social media and news. 

In addition to surveying the refugees on their personal technology habits, Maitland, Xu and their colleagues examined mapping and geographic information systems (GIS) use in the Zaatari camp. They are interested in learning how maps are used by service providers and to what extent refugees use maps. The researchers found extensive use of paper maps by service providers in the camp, Maitland said. The camp has been referred to as the “most mapped camp in the world,” due to the level of detail available online. Also, UNHCR distributes paper maps to refugees upon entering the camp.

“However, despite the widespread use of paper maps, challenges exist in making more extensive use of online maps,” Maitland said.

The researchers’ aim, Maitland said, is to continue researching ways to support and expand use of information technology in the camp, in line with UNHCR’s goals. They are interested in researching ways to expand access to wireless networks for both service providers and refugees to solve pressing problems, such as the lack of higher education opportunities. They also interested in the ways online mapping might help ongoing management and development of the camp.

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Last Updated August 25, 2016