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Refugee Text Service

A Digital Information Service for Refugees in North-Western Europe

PROJECT TIME: 8 WEEKS
AREA: SERVICE DESIGN
TEAM: INDIVIDUAL PROJECT

Student Runner up in the category Service Design at Core77 Design Awards 2016.

Aimed at refugees coming to Germany, Denmark and Scandinavia, the Refugee Text Service fills the information void created by an ever-changing political landscape. It provides refugees with access to information about who they can talk to, who they can trust, and what their options are, depending on their situation. The content is provided and updated by NGOs and volunteer organisations as well as a variety of experts in Denmark, Sweden and Germany.

The service is introduced to refugees before they reach Denmark - distributed by volunteers, NGOs, sim card providers and through social media. It is accessed via SMS, allowing any refugee with a phone to get verified and updated information directly to their handset. It also provides contacts for experts and locals willing to assist individuals in need.

As of February 2016, the project has been funded by NEST CIID and is currently being developed further. See www.refugeetext.org for more information and current implementations.

For more information, contact ksolvag@gmail.com


Process - Designing for Refugees

My starting point for the final project at CIID was the humanitarian crisis in Europe, caused by the increased number of people seeking refuge in Europe, the lack of systems in place to cater for them, and the lack of any clear EU political solutionThe first four weeks were spent researching the domain. Beginning with the topic word ‘refugees’, I worked on establishing contacts, observing and interviewing people on-the-ground and scoping possible opportunity areas.

Refugees seeking asylum in Europe is not a new phenomenon. However, the scale of the crisis in 2015, caused partially as a result of refugees finding their own routes to Europe, has caused the systems in place to fail. I focused on Denmark and neighboring countries, with the research spanning from refugees on their way through Europe, to the end of the asylum procedure and integration period. This user journey spans from 4 to 15 years in Denmark, due to the asylum and integration processes in place. In this initial research phase, I interviewed experts, NGOs, volunteering initiatives, activists and refugees.

When I started, I was keen to work closely with refugees and learn from their experience first-hand. As soon as I met new arrivals to Denmark, the gravity of their situation was striking. It was clear that traditional user-centric approaches would be difficult to carry out. I adjusted my approach and met them as a friendly local rather than as a designer with an agenda. The experience of helping refugees as well as the relationships I built up, allowed me to gain a better understanding of the journey they had taken, their values and needs, without using more traditional interview approaches.

Since I started out so broad, a lot of work went into immersing myself in the topic, building contacts and mapping out what is currently being done. I identified an extensive information gap for refugees approaching Denmark and in the early phases of the asylum process. Because refugees apply for asylum upon arrival, and not through the system in the region they flee from, it means there was no system within Europe to handle the large numbers arriving to Europe. Additionally, the asylum process is very difficult and important to understand, to avoid pitfalls, which can often result in deportation. This has caused a great need for more accessible information, that can prepare refugees for the asylum process and laws. By law, refugees who are unregistered and travel within Europe, are considered illegals, which further complicates the situation.

Through this process of speaking with refugees as a friendly local and understanding the journey they had been through as well as the shortcomings of the current systems in place, I was able to identify and prioritize design potentials and opportunity areas.

The refugees we see today are not aligned with the clichéd stereotype of refugees of times gone by. Earlier in 2015, refugees were dubbed “Techfugees” by some media sources. Considerable numbers of refugees are highly educated and are not necessarily very poor.  It was estimated that 80% of refugees have a smart-phone, and their use and dependencies on them have been evident. Two of the first things refugees seek for when they arrive to a new country, is a new disposable SIM-card and Wi-Fi. This has enabled them to stay connected with friends and family, plan routes, react to and avoid dangers and inform themselves about Europe. Because of this, numerous apps and websites have been developed in the last 6 months, aimed at refugees coming to Europe.

I went forward with 3 main areas, reception; to create a more dignified and respectful entry to a country and the asylum process. Inform; educate refugees and volunteers about the asylum process and laws, to help refugees make more informed decisions about their future, where to go and how to approach officials. Communication; providing the means for NGOs and volunteers to better communicate and coordinate their efforts.

Through ideation with classmates and experts, and drawing on insights, especially from meeting refugees and volunteers in the danish-German border area, the concept of an information service based on SMS was formed. The use of SMS as a media enables refugees to interact with the service without downloading or signing up to anything over internet. Once the user learn about the number, the service will always be accessible with any charged handset and SIM-card. The texts will always be accessible once received, capture more attention by being in a less crowded channel and easy to forward to others.

In the concept development, I worked closely with asylum experts in Copenhagen and a volunteering initiative in Flensburg, Germany. I prototyped the SMS service and the touchpoints in increasing fidelities, with asylum experts and classmates. In Flensburg, a hotspot for refugees coming to Scandinavia, I conducted most of my prototyping. Due to the vulnerable situation the refugees were in, I was eager to ensure that the service was only prototyped when it was useful to them. This was the catalyst for me creating a functioning version of the service, using an SMS gateway and a domain logic service to create and automate the service. I also tested various on-boarding approaches including handing out printed media, SIM-cards and posters. Some of these prototypes can be seen in the onboarding prototype video.