IST students research startup culture, refugee tech in Rwanda

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As technology touches every corner of the world, it’s integral to understand its profound ability to enhance and affect people’s everyday lives, especially in developing nations. That goal is why student researchers from Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) are headed to Rwanda on three distinct missions to discover how technology is used and implemented.

Carleen Maitland, associate professor of IST, is the adviser to three students traveling to Rwanda this summer: Eric Obeysekare, Katelyn Sullivan and Ying Xu. Maitland’s extensive research into humanitarian efforts aided by information technology, including studying Syrian refugees in a Jordanian camp, provides the foundation for the students’ work.

“Technology is not a one-sided relationship; you have to consider the people,” Maitland said. “I’m studying how people and organizations interact with technology, and in underdeveloped communities that’s extremely important.” Her students are continuing that important work.

Promoting a culture of entrepreneurship

Eric Obeysekare, a student earning his doctorate in IST, with the support of a prestigious Fulbright grant has already spent months in Rwanda studying the development of the country’s entrepreneurial economy. “My research is looking at information technology startups and entrepreneurship to understand more about their ecosystem and how the system is working with them,” he said.

Rwanda, a country marked by political tension stemming from a period of genocide in 1994, is hoping to transform their economy from what was traditionally agriculture to become a technology hub for East Africa. “The government is trying very hard to enable an environment for IT and these startups,” Obeysekare explained. “They see entrepreneurship as a way to help the lack of employment [in the country].”

For people who are unfamiliar with Rwandan culture, they may be surprised to find the country has adopted much of same technology as the US. With food delivery apps and a ride-share service for motorcycle taxis, the desire for digital innovation is apparent. “When I tell people that I research [tech startups in Rwanda,] they’re like ‘what?’” he laughed.

He spent his spring semester in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and home to a campus of Carnegie-Mellon University. The campus has an "innovation hub," a place much like startup accelerators in the U.S. that support burgeoning businesses. “My research involves a lot of interviewing those entrepreneurs and means I have to make connections,” he said. “What’s great about researching in Rwanda and this startup world, it’s a small community and it’s easy to get deeply involved.”

Obeysekare plans to publish his findings but also hopes it will have a practical impact on the government’s vision for the future. “Rwanda is a unique model because [entrepreneurship] is driven by the government,” he said. “There’s this idea that information technology will be the future of Rwanda.”

Community building in refugee camps

In the refugee camps, which host refugees from the Congo and Burundi, refugees are facing different obstacles. “Whenever a refugee crisis starts, there’s a lot of interest and empathy from other countries,” Maitland explained. With money and donations flowing in, it is easier to provide refugees with services and goods they need. “But as time goes on, that interest kind of dries up,” she added. “It’s then up to the humanitarian groups to figure out ways to support the refugee population.”

Ying Xu, also a doctoral student at IST, with funding from Penn State’s Africana Research Center is studying how to support and build a community structure with the resources that already exist within the camps. “Asset mapping, compared to other humanitarian services, uses an approach that emphasizes the assets that refugees already have, instead of what they need,” Xu said. “It’s mobilizing the resources and capacities of the population to help them solve their own problems.”

“[The refugees] are not helpless,” Maitland added. Xu’s research will work to understand the existing resources, such as refugees who were teachers that could start early education initiatives for the camp’s children. “Back home, they knew their neighbors and their skills and jobs,” Maitland explained. “But when you’re a refugee, you lose your social connections and don’t know anymore.”

One day, they hope to create a mobile app for the refugees that enables them to easily search through a database and tap into their community’s resources. “The humanitarian organizations would also be able to search and visualize the data they are collecting. It’s at the intersection of IT systems and data sciences,” Maitland said.

Over the next few months, Xu will be focusing on identifying these assets and helping to teach refugees how to access the collected data, and ultimately strengthen the fabric of the community.

Using technology to increase food access for refugees

For Katelyn Sullivan, an undergraduate student majoring in IST, business, and finance, the opportunity to engage in international research was an unexpected opportunity. “I was looking for an honors advisor, and Dr. Maitland took me under her wing,” she said. “Before, I never thought I would have this opportunity.” 

Funded by the College of IST and the Schreyer’s Honors College, Sullivan is researching how refugees living in Rwanda are using different technologies to access food. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR, sometimes referred to as the UN Refugee Agency) was trying to figure out why a pilot program aimed at solving this problem had failed.

“In 2013, the World Food Program (WFP), a UN agency, provided refugee households with a cellphone with what they called a mobile money system,” Sullivan said. Refugees were able to use these phones to pay for a variety of food and services. While the project intended to simplify an important part of a refugee’s everyday life, the system was disbanded in 2016 in favor of a simpler ATM card-like system.

“We always think of technology helping people and making things easier, but [the mobile money system] was actually hindering their lifestyle,” Sullivan said. “What I’m investigating is why it seems there was a reversal in technology.”  

To accomplish this, she interviewed multiple sources during her time in Rwanda to gather information about how and why the program failed. “The local UNHCR office was unsure as to why this program didn’t work,” Maitland said. “Her research will not only provide important examples of how technology adoption doesn’t always make linear progress forward, but sometimes goes backwards.”

Sending three of her students to Rwanda, Maitland is proud of the work her team will be accomplishing. “What good is technology if everyone doesn’t benefit?” she said. “We’re looking at vulnerable populations and making sure they can benefit from technological advances.”

The team of student researchers is eager to explore these questions, but they know answering them is not the end of their efforts. Obeysekare added, “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Media Contacts: 

Erin Cassidy Hendrick

Marketing Communications Specialist, College of Information Sciences and Technology

Last Updated July 28, 2017