A few weeks ago in Berlin, members of the tech community, civil society, and the city’s growing population of refugees gathered for three days of workshops and presentations on how technology might support people arriving in Germany with nothing after having fled their home countries. The event was titled “Civil Society 4.0—Refugees and Digital Self Organization,” and those last three words reflect the impressive spread of independently organized digital projects aimed at helping refugees. They also describe the major challenge facing those efforts: how to organize collectively and eliminate duplication. 

Over the past year, initiatives to address issues confronting refugees have gathered pace as the migrant crisis has worsened, and have started attracting more significant media coverage and public attention. Although tech projects for refugees are underway in several countries, the most concentrated activity seems to be in Germany. We at betterplace lab are cataloguing and tracking these projects, and two-thirds of those we know of—a total of 77—are German. 

This is no great surprise. The crisis is making headlines around the world, but due to the German government’s polarizing open-door policy and the consequent arrival of approximately one million refugees, the crisis has singularly dominated Germany’s political and public agenda for months. (In countries through which large numbers of refugees pass, such as Greece, civil society has of course also been very active, but the number and variety of projects appears to be smaller. Our organization is doing field research to better understand efforts in these countries.) 

Within Germany, meanwhile, hundreds of organizations, established and new, supported by the state and by civil society, offer support of various kinds to refugees. And several projects (such as clarat, a partner of betterplace) attempt to help refugees find and navigate all these services. One upshot of so much activity has been duplication, and hence redundancy. For each digital project that provides a vital service to refugees, there are at least a handful of others trying to do something broadly similar, if not exactly the same.

Five projects mapping different services available to refugees in Berlin: InfoCompass, Willkommensnetz, HelpCamp, Arriving in Berlin, and clarat.

These overlapping projects cluster around a few distinct categories. Some (like the Ankommen app) give information to new arrivals in Germany, such as basic orientation, or help understanding the complex bureaucracy of asylum or learning the local language. There are also “matching” platforms that pair refugees looking for a place to live with people who have a spare room (a service offered by Flüchtlinge Willkommen, for instance) or match refugees looking for work with employers (as Horizont: Perspektive Vielfalt does). And because the booming tech industry could offer particularly accessible employment to refugees, initiatives such as ReDI School are working to teach them coding skills.

The fragmentation of these projects exacerbates a major difficulty many organizations face anyway: actually managing to reach the refugees they seek to serve. The main obstacle is not access to hardware; smartphones are used very widely both during the journey and following arrival. The issue is seemingly a lack of awareness—and perhaps a disconnect between what is on offer, and what users need and want. We are working to get better data on how many refugees use these targeted digital services, but anecdotally, refugees (including those at the “Civil Society 4.0” conference) are aware of almost none of the existing projects. And having a handful of projects with similar aims but varying quality, all competing for attention, may well turn off potential users from seeking out and using any of them.

Much of the work of receiving, supporting, and starting to integrate the great influx of people into Germany has been achieved through high levels of volunteering, and services like GoVolunteer have been built to help coordinate these efforts. But to make a bigger impact, we need more coherent organization across different groups. 

Several approaches might contribute to better coordination. One would be some voluntary consolidation between organizations through projects merging. Some initiatives are the work of a group of “hacktivists” without a formal organizational structure, powered solely by volunteer work. There is quite a lot of networking between these groups, at hackathons and through Facebook groups and Slack channels. But after several months of work, many are only now beginning to think about how to get their projects onto more sustainable footing and where they might apply for funding. Others already appear dormant. 

Toward the other end of the spectrum of groups working on refugee tech projects are a smaller number of more-professional operations. With their greater focus on obtaining funding, some as social enterprises, these organizations seem more likely than the hacktivists to grow rapidly—and may even harness the hacktivists’ goodwill and volunteer resources. For that to happen, however, Jeff Wishnie of ThoughtWorks’ Social Impact Program and others have argued that hacktivists would need to accept that while building something new from scratch may be more fun, contributing to something established is much more likely to have a positive impact.

Another push for coordination could come from these projects’ funders. There will likely be no shortage of funding in Germany for tech projects to help refugees, as large institutions try to find ways to support the response to the crisis. Donor organizations will have power either to aggravate the fragmentation of programs or, by coordinating with each other, be catalysts for consolidation and collective impact.

To promote coordination, donors should work toward establishing a set of standards for refugee tech projects. As Richard Dent at the University of Cambridge has argued, setting minimum standards—for data usage and privacy in particular, but also for product design and organizational structure—would help encourage safer and more sustainable applications, while also leading to greater consolidation. Standards could be framed as a challenge set by funders and refugee NGOs.

The way the refugee tech situation develops in Germany could have significant influence on other countries that face the challenge of receiving and integrating large numbers of refugees. These countries could benefit not only by adapting individual German initiatives that have succeeded, but also by learning from Germany’s experience about the need to coordinate and adopt standards at an earlier stage. 

Germany’s surge in self-organized tech projects that emerged spontaneously and quickly to support refugees has been extraordinary. What we need now is self-organization across the whole sector.