IST researcher's new book explores the world of 'digital refugees'

Jordan Ford
May 29, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new book edited by Carleen F. Maitland, associate professor of information sciences and technology, explores the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) by refugees and displaced persons. Titled “Digital Lifeline? ICTs for Refugees and Displaced Persons,” the book was published by the MIT Press this May.

Maitland’s research focuses on the use of technology, such as mobile phones, wireless networks and biometric authentication, for humanitarian relief and social and economic development. Written primarily for students, scholars and aid agencies, the book builds on this research to provide a forward-looking perspective on the problems faced by "digital refugees” and explores the research, policies and practices needed to understand the issues surrounding their use of ICTs.

“In the book, we articulate a research agenda that we hope will help to shape future technical designs, the organizational practices around the technology, and its use in mitigating the trauma of the refugee,” said Maitland.

In 2016, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees reported that the number of refugees, displaced persons and stateless persons due to war, oppression, economic collapse or natural phenomena like drought and famine neared 100 million worldwide. Maitland recognizes that the individual’s need to access technology and communicate with family members often precedes the ability to address the underlying issues of these displacement causes.

“The most fundamental need for a refugee is to communicate," said Maitland.

As humanitarian organizations have more recently adopted innovative practices to address the refugee crisis, they are now more commonly viewing ICTs as essential to their missions. With ICTs’ potential to both benefit and harm refugees, however, the book explores the scalability and sustainability of these innovations and speculates about emerging issues based on current research and practices.

“The most fundamental need for a refugee is to communicate.” 

—Carleen Maitland, associate professor of IST

Maitland’s research, in part, details two major challenges facing refugees and aid organizations. The first is the need to broaden the definition and security of the digital refugee to fulfill the U.N.’s mandate of providing international protection for refugees.

“When a refugee arrives with the few physical items they brought with them, the United Nations provides housing and security for those physical assets,” explained Maitland. “But what of the digital identities and memories of these refugees? Who is protecting those? We need to expand the concept of the digital refugee and the protection of that entity.”

The second challenge focuses on the concept of digital humanitarian brokerage that explores which and in what capacities organizations can access refugees.

“Right now, the U.N. agencies and their implementing partners control access to refugees, and they have good reasons for that,” said Maitland, explaining, for example, that aid given to a particular group could unintentionally deepen existing unrest.

“But once those refugees are reachable — and now that they’re armed with smartphones and Facebook accounts, many of them are — individuals can connect with refugees without these agencies even knowing about it. This reality needs to be recognized and potentially managed.”

“Digital Lifeline?” includes contributions from international scholars in fields like international affairs, law, and computer science, and draws on fieldwork conducted in Jordan, Lebanon, Rwanda, Germany, Greece, the United States and Canada. These collaborations continue to guide Maitland’s studies.

She is conducting research on refugee ICT use through her ongoing fieldwork in Uganda with the Smart Communities Coalition. The project, led by the United States Agency for International Development and the Mastercard Foundation, is addressing technology challenges that refugees and host communities face. The coalition is working to improve internet connectivity, digital-payment capabilities, and energy access within refugee settlements.

She is also participating in the “Data for Refugees Turkey,” a challenge where researchers can analyze a large dataset of anonymized mobile phone usage with the aim of creating practical solutions that improve living conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Both her past and current research experiences, coupled with the ongoing events worldwide, signaled that the timing was right for “Digital Lifeline?”

“This is the right time for this book because we’ve seen what’s been happening in the refugee crisis and migration into Europe,” said Maitland. “This is just a small part of the overall global crisis, but it represents the canary in the coal mine.

“Those refugees are entering countries where there is near-ubiquitous access to technology, so it’s the perfect time to look forward.”

Maitland serves as the co-director of Penn State’s Institute for Information Policy, and she has worked with several U.N. organizations and government agencies. Her research has produced more than 100 refereed journal articles, conference proceedings and presentations, and she currently serves as associate editor of the open access journal Information Technologies & International Development. Maitland earned a doctorate in the Economics of Infrastructures from Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, as well as undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Stanford University.

Last Updated July 19, 2018