Alice Brennan, SettleIn's CEO, will speak at Vogue Codes Summit in October. Check out her profile here and get your tickets for the event. She will be speaking on day 1 on the topic of: Art vs Science: why can’t we all just get along?
Humanitarian aid workers are always telling us technologists off for thinking that we can solve "the refugee crisis" with an app. I’ve always found this quite strange, because as far as I know, no-one has ever claimed that an app could solve any intractable international emergency. When I delved a little deeper into it, it became clear that part of this confusion comes from the way humanitarians and technologists use language. In particular, the word “solution” can stop techies and humanitarians from really understanding one another, and this is a real difficulty for all involved.
In a humanitarian context, “a solution for the refugee crisis” means either making asylum much easier and safer to secure, or even that forced displacement will stop happening. For example, Amnesty International recently published this comprehensive article called “8 ways to solve the refugee crisis”, which details the activities that need to take place to significantly improve the lives of people displaced by conflict. Their eight solutions are designed to be implemented by world leaders, and range from getting states to invest in search and rescue operations, to combatting xenophobia and racial discrimination, to opening up safe routes to sanctuary.
Undoubtedly, these strategies would be far more effective at helping people fleeing conflict than any app could ever be. This is why, I think, humanitarians are dismissive when we technologists talk about our solutions. When Amnesty International uses the phrase “a solution for a crisis”, they mean “a solution for a crisis in its entirety”. When technologists use the phrase“a solution for a crisis” they mean “a solution for a specific problem experienced by people affected by a crisis”. Technology can be great at solving small and bounded problems, such as how to provide wifi to transient communities, how to clear minefields safely or how to provide higher education to refugees in new countries. What is confusing is the fact that we are using the same word to describe problem solving on very different scales.
It’s time for us techies working in the humanitarian sector to ditch the word “solution”. If we replace the word “solution” with “tool”, “device” or “equipment”, humanitarians will stop thinking that we are deluded enough to believe we can end forced displacement with apps, and they will start to think of us as people with skills and products they can harness as part of a suite of strategies to make the world a better place.
Technology can be unsettling. It changes at a rapid pace, and is often hard to understand, and can leave us exposed to threats we didn’t know we had to be worried about. It makes sense to be wary of technology. However, being wary of technology and being afraid of technology are very different. If we are afraid of technology we don’t engage with it, and this can mean losing out on all of the benefits it can bring. Take, for example, the washing machine. Washing machines were invented in the 1700s and became commonplace in Europe, America and Australia by the middle of the 20th century. This technology has saved human beings countless hours of manual labour, enabling people to spend their time on far more interesting activities. The washing machine saved so much time that it has been credited by several historians and economists for speeding up the movement for women’s empowerment. However, in spite these lessons from history, many organisations are missing out on their “washing machine moment” because they are not engaging with new technology.
In my experience, charity and NGO staff can quite often be guilty of technophobia. However, having worked in these organisations, I understand where the fear comes from: when your work involves protecting vulnerable people, you can’t expose them to unnecessary risks. Technological progress may have brought us the washing machine, but it also brought us asbestos…
Luckily, there are some steps that even the busiest professional can take to learn how to identify which technologies could really going to help, and which to stay away from.
Keep pace with technology (in 30 minutes a week)
One of the best ways to understand and feel more comfortable with technology is to subscribe to some easily digestible news sources. Mashable has a great email newsletter and Twitter feed, and BBC’s “Click” podcast covers a wide range of technology in 30 minutes, which you can listen to on your way to work. Et voilà, an overview of the possibilities of technology with minimal effort.
Talk with techies
We are actually quite nice when you get to know us! Seriously, there are loads of techies who are really keen to support the great work that charities and non-profits do. If you can give us the opportunity to understand you and your work, we will be able to give great recommendations and even create new products to help solve your problems. Find a Meetup group or search for us on LinkedIn and reach out.
Organise a hackathon
If you’re super inspired by technology’s potential, organise yourself a hackathon. Hackathons are two-day events where techies work directly with your staff and clients to understand your organisation and your challenges and create new technologies. Many tech-forward charities and non-profits have gone down this route, ranging from SettleIn’s awesome partners SSI and STARTTS to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and the Red Cross.
In short, you can't afford to ignore technology. It's not as complicated as you think, and if you make the effort to understand the myriad of possibilities, you might just find something as spectacularly useful as a washing machine.