Peak ‘There’s an app for that’.

During the Europe ‘crisis’ of 2015 we experienced a huge surge in volunteer resources, many people wanting to volunteer came with great software/app development skills. At this time, refugees faced significant communication gaps, and their need for clear, translated, accurate information were undeniable. In an attempt to address this challenge, some volunteers applied their skills to develop Information Sharing apps for refugees. Apps were not exclusively developed to share information, but were also developed for employment matching, learning, and strengthening integration. The number of apps being created mushroomed across the continent – some launched with relatively loud fanfare. Unfortunately, many failed to gain traction with refugee communities and quickly became outdated. I definitely don’t want to disparage the motivations nor the commitments demonstrated by thousands of volunteers during in Europe. But, ‘tech-led solutions’ to complex challenges failed to solve the significant communication issues.

In the Europe context, many apps were developed with limited to no interaction with refugees – based on assumed information needs and supposed communication habits. Developed in a ‘bubble’, many apps duplicated existing well-used communication platforms. They didn’t take into account complex issues of trust, how information (and rumors) spread, nor how rapidly the political and protection landscape changed. Additionally, there was demonstrated naivety around data protection and the political sensitivity related to information being shared. I spoke to several disheartened developers who had challenges accessing the information they needed for their app, they also shared their frustrations with lack of resources for roll-out and updates. Developers were lost in humanitarian coordination structures and inhibited by agencies’ financing constraints. Yet, the hype continued, hackathons were rife, and the number of ‘you need an app’ calls I received increased. The app proliferation definitely reached its peak, when someone recommended creating a parallel Facebook App – for refugees.

Let’s learn from this – very often there’s not ‘an app for that’. 

Is it worth it? 

So, I’m clearly opinionated about Information Sharing apps for refugees! In a classic case of retrofitting my position, I completed ‘rapid research’ on the Google Play Store. Using the search taxonomy: ‘information for refugees’, I had a quick review of the background and metrics of the first five returned relevant searches (conducted the second week of October 2018). Yes, there are inherent and huge flaws to this process (for example search language) – it’s illustrative rather than scientific. Stay with me…

I was looking for an update date, the version number and number of installs. The most recent update was seven weeks ago (an update to version 3.0.1 of the app). The remaining four apps were all version 1.0 – with one as ‘old’ as July 2017, another seven months old, and the final two apps were at least five months old. One app had been downloaded 1000+ times, three apps had 500+ downloads each, and the final 5+ downloads. So, what am I trying to illustrate?

For information to be useful, it has to be accessible. These apps might have great information on them, they might be beautifully designed but very few people have downloaded them, and arguably fewer are using them. There are over 3 million apps the Play Store – there is absolutely no guarantee that if you build it, they will come. Far from it. There’s no rule-of-thumb for how long it takes to make an app, or how much it costs – the variants are huge. I’m not a software developer, and couldn’t even pretend to be – but I do know that creating an information sharing app is not a ‘quick’ process. The complexities of coordinating multiple stakeholders, managing information flows and conducting user testing cannot be underestimated. Nor does the process end when the app is launched on the Play Store. Someone has to be responsible for ensuring the information remains updated and syncs properly with the app. You may discover bugs, and fixes might be needed, Consider the cost-benefit analysis of the development and roll-out of an app that has only been downloaded by five people. How could these resources be better used to engage end-users in two-way conversations? How could time have better been spent to more frequently share relevant, up-to-date, usable information, to more people?

So, do we scrap apps?

No, there could be an app for that. An app may be the solution to a challenge that has been clearly identified with end-users; a solution that you have developed through experimentation, feedback, iteration and more feedback. A solution that has not been jumped straight to, nor because ‘everyone has an app’. Another important consideration is the required resourcing to develop an app – they are not ‘quick fixes’. Great if you have app development capacity – a staff member, a volunteer, a company – but don’t treat this as a ‘one-off’ coding exercise. What resources will you need for de-bugging and updating? You don’t want to fall into the trap of creating version 1.0 which withers, unused in the Play Store.

This is definitely not a technical a ‘how to’ develop an app guide – I’d be the worst person in our team to write that! However, working with a couple of operations through the app development process – including Salaam in Israel – the following Communicating with Communities approach can help guide thinking.  

And if you are going to build an application? Start with these considerations and actions during your process:

  1. Don’t jump to a solution first – define the challenge: Engage the community that you’d like to establish a dialogue with – really understand what is the information and communication challenge you are trying to solve? There are a number of tools that will help you drill down into the challenge – for example, an information and communication needs assessment. This will help you define what the specific challenges are and for whom.
  2. Generate ideas with the community: Build from the community’s preferred communication channels. Work with communities to generate ideas on how these can be improved to address the gaps you’ve identified; particularly how these can be extended to the groups with the least information. You don’t need a Facebook for refugees if they’re already using Facebook.
  3. Work with existing community capacities: Engage local journalists, musicians, actors, app builders, community organizations, Facebook Groups, girls’ WhatsApp groups – whatever you find!
  4. Experiment: Choose an idea and give it a go – but don’t go large yet. Test it and learn from your experiment. Speak to as many people as you can during this experimentation. And ask yourself: Are you addressing the information and communications challenge you set out to solve?
  5. Keep experimenting, keep iterating: See how your communications solution ‘runs’ and continue to learn. Continue to work out what works and what doesn’t, before you go to scale.
  6. Diversify and test your channels: No community is homogenous – meaning there is no ‘silver bullet’ or one ‘best channel’ to communicate via. Everybody accesses and consumes information in a different way – we are all unique. Therefore, plural communication channels are critical – the fewer channels we use in our community communications the more groups or individuals we are in danger of excluding.

More information on these approaches on the Innovation Service’s Communicating with Communities microsite.



We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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