Technology in exile

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. This month, researchers from Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) will return to the Za’atari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, where they are collaborating with other researchers as part of an effort to study how residents and service providers 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, associate professor of information sciences and technology.

Maitland, along with her graduate student advisee, Ying Xu, visited the Za’atari camp, Jordan’s largest facility for Syrian refugees, in January and February of 2015. The trip was part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation 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 now provides a temporary home to roughly 80,000 refugees.

During that visit, the research that Maitland, Xu and their colleagues conducted was 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 U.N. 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 U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Save the Children and the U.S. State Department.

Maitland and Xu are returning to the Za’atari camp this month to continue their research and explore the use of information technologies to foster community engagement. They also look forward to hearing about developments in the camp’s wireless infrastructure. Since the refugees have no access to higher education or scholarships, the researchers are investigating how the Internet can provide tertiary education.

Results of their January 2015 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.

Through field measurements of mobile and wireless network signals, together with their surveys, Maitland and her colleagues have conducted an in-depth investigation of the Za’atari camp’s Internet infrastructure. The camp has three mobile carriers, Maitland said, but the bandwidth and general connectivity vary significantly within the camp, which causes problems since people don’t want to live in areas of poor cellular coverage. The researchers also found that mobile phone use is relatively high among the residents, and that men are more likely to own smartphones. These results will be presented at the upcoming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICTD) 2016 conference in June, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

One of the central issues in the researchers’ study of technology use in the Za’atari camp, Maitland said, is determining how the existing infrastructure can accommodate refugees’ and service providers’ needs. The international community has not been keeping up with the Internet needs in the camps, she added. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a statement in an address to the U.N. General Assembly in September about wanting to wire refugee camps, Maitland said, but the UNHCR doesn’t have the budget for the ongoing costs of cyber-cafes or mobile Internet access — the refugees, who are legally prohibited from formal employment, must pay mobile phone bills out of their own pockets.

Another ongoing area of investigation, Maitland said, is the power dynamic between the UNHCR and the Za’atari camp residents. As is often the case with refugee camps, according to Maitland, UNHCR is put in the role of a “benevolent dictator,” particularly in regards to the electronic voucher program in the camp, which controls where refugees purchase food. In that system, refugees are issued a debit card containing their monthly food allowance. They are able to use their cards at point-of-sale terminals in only two sanctioned grocery stores in the camp. This food purchasing system is being integrated with data collected as part of the registration process during which refugees are issued identity cards. For these cards, UNHCR collects iris scans of all refugees. Plans are in place to use these data to secure transactions at the grocery stores using an integrated point-of-sale and iris-scan authentication process. This will provide a level of security unknown to most U.S. consumers. However, it is unclear whether or not the camp’s residents are happy about this development.

“There are a lot of open questions about how the system works and who benefits; this is one of the reasons we are interested in studying and supporting community engagement,” Maitland said.

She elaborated that their goal is to research processes and best practices for using information in community engagement that, in turn, can foster better relations within the camp as well as facilitating more effective problem solving.

“We are looking forward to our upcoming trip and working with our U.N. colleagues,” she said.

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Last Updated March 04, 2016