A private British company, Digital Fan Clubs (today Trellyz), devised a free app that helps refugees find the services they need through geolocation. Refugee Aid App or RefAid was launched on February 16, 2016.
Shelley Taylor is the one behind this innovative idea. She is the founder and CEO of the company. She was born and raised in the Silicon Valley, while she is very familiar with Europe. In fact, she is now based in London.
On October 15, 2015, Shelley published a blog on Digital Fan Clubs website:
A couple of weeks ago I realized that the thing we do best here at Digital Fan Clubs, is the thing that is most needed by these refugees. By creating the Refugee Aid App – a single source of information and resources and a single interface for aid organizations to make their resources available – we could harness our technology to solve a huge problem.
This time our client is the entire community of refugees and the aid organizations that serve them. This time we are aligning ourselves with this new wave of humans who are coming to our shores, neighborhoods and communities, not because they want to, but because they have nowhere else to go. We want to be there to help them, as we were all helped by someone before us.
As many of us, Shelly was stricken and moved by the unprecedented scale of the refugee crisis.
I spoke with her to find out more about RefAid.
As an American, my perception about migration is very different. Today, 25 percent of all the Americans are either migrants or migrants’ children.
I asked myself what I could possibly do. Go to Calais as a volunteer? I have a company to run. So I went to a number of conferences and it became obvious that there’s little cooperation and coordination in the response to the crisis.
Shelley decided to put her company’s experience and work at the service of a cause. Since they could set up an app easy and fast, they realised a common platform – something that NGOs admitted was long overdue.
In fact, Shelley got the approval of transnational and important organisations like UNHCR and the Red Cross.
This is how it all started. At the beginning of November, Shelley asked her developers to work on a new project. A project that won’t bring revenues but is going to be extremely rewarding in humanitarian terms.
NGOs can enter the details of the services they provide – including addresses, hours and other useful information. The app is currently up and running in Italy and the UK.
In both countries, large NGOs like Save the Children and the Red Cross already entered their data and services. However, RefAid is set to provide a much larger database, including large and small registered NGOs and the services provided by each.
Shelley started out by connecting with the main NGOs operating in the field, those she knew are reliable and trustworthy.
We did it because they operate in many countries so we thought they could provide information on a regional scale.
But she had to admit she was naive: Local offices rarely share information with each other so obtaining a transnational database proved much harder than expected.
In some cases, it took weeks to obtain a simple Excel sheets with addresses and services.
We started by connecting with the organisations. Then, NGOs started calling us. For example, a Turkish organisation just contacted me. It’d be very interesting if we could cover the whole Europe and host countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Building up a network of contacts with the NGOs is a full-time job. However, another major problem arose.
Our main issue is funding. My investors supported me, but we have limited resources and it takes a lot of money to run a project like that.
Shelly first launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo. It didn’t go far. So she decided to invest some of her company profits to kick-start the project.
Maybe, when the app will be well known we could try again. We also applied for grants but it takes ages and we wanted to start as soon as possible.
The sense of urgency is more than justified. The initiative has the potential to cause a revolution in the way aid and related services are made available to those in need.
This app could become a global platform for refugee aid. Perhaps, for humanitarian aid, in general.
Shelley stressed again the importance of trustworthiness:
We only provide authentic and reliable information, so we only work with official NGOs.
On their interface, NGOs can fill in the fields and enter the information about their services. They can also access a map that shows them which services are offered where.
This means that they can check gaps. They can improve coordination and coverage.
Furthermore, when the app will reach significant numbers of refugees, they will be able to check where they concentrate and target the affected area with more aid.
NGOs will also be able to notify emergency communications to the refugees using the app. For example, adverse weather conditions.
The app is extremely easy to use. The user can search services by category (legal/admin; food; shelter; water; families; unaccompanied children; women; health; education; sanitation) and access their location on a map.
The app shows results on a 70 kilometres radius. This is because the app can’t be seen (nor can the NGOs) to be helping refugees move from one country to another.
From the refugees‘ point of view, having direct and independent access to this kind of info means they don’t have to rely on word of mouth, so they feel more confident and more welcome.
I don’t really know how they feel during their journey, but I guess they rely on Facebook groups and the like to know where to go and how to navigate through Europe. Our app provides reliable and accurate information.
Some countries do not welcome warmly these people, many in Europe would rather put up walls.
Given the numbers there, we’d like to launch the app in Greece in a couple of weeks. Then, we’ll target the Balkans because in that region the refugees received one of the harshest treatment. Eventually, we hope to cover the whole European territory.
RefAid is still a work in progress. The more organisation will sign up, the more information will be available to refugees, the more the app is going to have a significant impact.
Eventually, refugees will be able to install the app and gain direct access to a wealth of useful information to smooth a journey, which is itself the hardest journey of their lives. The app is currently available in English only, but it will soon be available in Arabic, too. Spread the news!