The Migration Crisis in Europe—Making Smart Use of Smartphones

How can technology be used to help the migration crisis in Europe? Joseph Bock, author of The Technology of Nonviolence, shares thoughts from Greece.

I know lots of people wish they could do something to help migrants who are fleeing war, injustice or poverty and flooding into Europe. I had the same feeling. I was surprised about three weeks ago to find an email message asking if I wanted to do just that. Will I go to Greece, supported by the Fulbright Foundation in Greece, to help the Municipality of Athens with this largest flow of displaced human beings since World War II?

I’m now in Athens working with a team assembled by Mayor Giorgos Kaminis to develop a plan on how to respond to this crisis. I’ve been giving some thought to how smartphones, social media and internet-based platforms can be used in this situation. So, in case this might be helpful to people working on these kinds of challenges, here are some ways to consider:

Aid optimization

I have been touched by how hospitable the Greek people are. Over 700,000 migrants have arrived here this year alone. The Greeks feel they have a moral obligation to help people who are fleeing war and oppression.

Many people are reaching out, expressing their desire to help. Some want to open their homes or apartments to an incoming family. Others are donating their time as translators. Still others want to provide educational opportunities for Kindergarteners. The list goes on and on. 

OpenDataKit, or some other platform like KoBo Toolbox, can be used to build linkages between people who want to help and people who need help. Surveys on smartphones (which migrants have in abundance) can be conducted to identify help offered and help needed, and those can be matched. Using social media to facilitate this kind of direct aid is a mega-trend in humanitarian relief, as explained in Disaster Relief 2.0.

Early identification

Over the weekend, I went to Lesvos, a Greek island that is the close to Turkey. This is where the majority of migrants are entering Greece. They are so close the shores of Turkey are visible while standing on the beach in Lesvos.

Tragically, thousands of people have died will attempting to cross this roughly eight kilometers of water. The Hellenic Coast Guard and volunteers from many countries keep an eye out for boatloads of people, hoping to spot them in time to rescue them if they capsize, which is not unlikely because smugglers pack as many people into boats as they can so as to maximize profit.

When I was in Lesvos, I saw volunteers sitting on benches near the water. I assume they do so in shifts. This is a good strategy, but a new wrinkle makes it less effective—because of pressure and incentives from the European Union, Turkey is exercising greater diligence to stem the flow of migrants from their country to Europe. That means migrants are departing from locations along the border that are less close to Greece, where smugglers are less likely to be detected.  It is increasingly likely that migrants will turn up on beaches further from Turkey. The locations are relatively random.

There are numerous examples of using crowdsourcing to identify locations of people in distress (such as when satellite images were viewed by “the crowd” and their “collective intelligence” identified the location of lost mountain climbers). In this case, anyone on one of the Greek islands could be asked to send a text or message to a central location if they see or think they see a boat or a migrant in the frigid water. A platform like Crowdmap would provide a geographic picture, where “hotspots” can be identified of where migrants are tending to arrive. This does not replace the “beach-watchers,” but it does “get more eyes on the water.”

Violence prevention

Smartphones can be used to crowdsource information about high tensions among migrants so that violence can be nipped in the bud. Usually, people working with the migrants in camps will sense this and can take action quickly (to mediate or to call the police, if needed), so the value-added of a smartphone-based conflict early warning system is not substantial.

Where it would arguably be more useful is in crowdsourcing rumors of violence by hate groups against migrants. This has not been a major problem here, but it is predictable when you have so many people from so many places with such different cultures arriving in a concentrated location. People eager to curtail xenophobic ugliness and crime could have a central number to which to send texts, or they could send information to a platform like Crowdmap, categorizing the information they send, and attaching photos or videos if needed. Some categories of events that presage violence against migrants would be speeches made, brochures distributed, announcements posted on the internet, and Twitter feeds sent, among others. Knowing when something is brewing can be tremendously helpful in preventing violence.

Other platforms to consider are FrontlineSMS or TextIt. They could be used to notify migrants via text about what is happening. These people are vulnerable. Many are frustrated. In such situations, rumors based on misinformation can spread like wildfire. Sending out texts to clarify situations before people panic would be a very useful and a much appreciated service.

In closing, let’s keep in mind that technology is of limited value. Crisismappers call this the 90:10 rule—90 percent of an initiative is in the organizing, the execution, and the management; only 10 percent is technology. But it is the Holiday Season, and I feel compelled to say that the 90 percent here in Greece also includes an intangible, unquantifiable dimension. It’s a condition in which people are capable of loving strangers.