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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 1°C

This Irish man is trying to help refugees overcome a major information problem

And through the use of an old tech.

WITH THE DIRECTION messaging is going,  it’s easy to assume that the likes of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegraph and Viber have all but replaced SMS.

Yet despite its age, SMS isn’t going anywhere yet and while newer methods overshadow it, it’s still one of the most commonplace mediums around.

For Ciarán Duffy, who is based in Copenhagen, this helped form the basis of his startup, designed to help refugees.

He and his other co-founders, Caroline Arvidsson from Sweden and Kåre Solvåg from Norway, are developing an SMS and Facebook Messenger service that would provide refugees arriving in Europe with consistent, relevant information regarding their situation.

While the use of SMS for sending information isn’t new, it’s the use of chatbots that makes it a little different. A person can start off a conversation with it – choosing whether to get answers in English or Arabic – and by replying with simple numerical answers, they can get relevant information based on information like their age, gender, location, if you have a spouse, child or family, and where they’re based.

The system is currently a work in progress; the startup only began in January and it’s only focusing on Norway, Sweden and Germany, but it’s currently in talks with humanitarian aid organisations about adopting the service and expanding it to other countries.

Refugee text

According to Duffy, the reason for choosing SMS as the starting point was because of its ubiquity and immediateness.

“The reason we chose SMS as the medium is it’s a very direct communication tool,” he said. “It’s more immediate a communication channel than an app or website”.

[When researching] one of the big things we noticed was there was a huge information gap between the people working to inform refugees and the refugees themselves. Often they would encounter authorities… [but] they had no information on where they could go or what would be expected of them.

One of the problems with getting such information out is both speed and reliability. The usual methods of sharing information in camps are through loudspeakers, flyers and pamphlets which aren’t particularly effective.

Because of that, it means that refugees often rely on each other for information which creates its own problem. What might be true for one person might not apply to others and if that information spreads, then it can easily lead to confusion and problems especially as the needs change, says Duffy.

The length of time that a refugee would spend in a camp could be anything between 2 to 15 years so the kinds of information they need starts to evolve the longer they spend in these situations. Initially they can be things like family reunification to asylum information then it evolves to more situational and contextual information like where the next food distribution point is.

Refugee Text Team The three founders of Refugee Text : Ciarán Duffy (left), Caroline Arvidsson, and Kåre M.S. Solvåg.

While the initial aim was to send out quick, relevant pieces of information, the information needed to make informed decisions is anything but. The texts are broken up into segments which can be quite dense, but that’s down to the complexity of the information required by those using it.

“What we found when we worked with the experts is it’s quite complex information and you have to deliver all sides of the information,” explained Duffy. “Once we realised that, we were worried that the info would be too long… but in testing that, the response has been overwhelmingly positive”.

In the testing, we found that refugees respond very well when they can relate the information back to their own case so that’s why we try to personalise the information… to your nationality, to where your family are in Europe or if they’re back home.

It’s early days for the startup but for now, it’s in talks with different humanitarian organisations about partnering and piloting the scheme in countries like Jordan and Greece as well as testing it with refugees to see what’s working.

It’s also been in talks with telecom providers about support as well, but the ultimate aim is to provide “this one trustworthy source that’s always bound to be up to date” according to Duffy.

Read: Facebook says it’s running out of places to show ads in your news feed >

Read: Using a wireless keyboard? It could allow hackers to see what you’re typing >

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