The UN Is Turning to Big Data and Crowdsourcing to Tackle the Refugee Crisis

In Syria, the UN is using a platform called SpigitEngage to crowdsource problems and solutions for refugees.

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May 6 2014, 9:25pm
Refugee children from Syria at a clinic in Ramtha, northern Jordan (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Thrust into a new country, refugees are often forced to learn a new language in order to absorb new culture, find jobs, and gain access to information and vital social services. Amidst the difficult circumstances endemic to most refugee camps and relocations, this can be a hugely difficult undertaking. The Innovation Unit of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is tackling the problem by turning to Mindjet's SpigitEngage platform, which harnesses cloud computing to identify and solve problems through crowdsourcing. 

“With many ongoing crises happening right now like in Syria and South Sudan, the need to overcome the short and long-term problems caused by language barriers in education is urgent. Millions of people have been displaced from their home countries because of conflicts and are struggling to maintain any form of normality,” said Olivier Delarue, head of UNHCR Innovation, when the group's first challenge was announced earlier this year. “By having UNHCR Ideas powered by the Mindjet’s SpigitEngage platform we’re able to better foster collaboration and harvest creativity from all UNHCR stakeholders across the globe to find innovative solutions to this challenge.”

The SpigitEngage platform, originally developed for corporations, also leverages big data analytics and game mechanics (i.e., leader boards) to aid the UN with its humanitarian work. As Delerue noted, the SpigitEngage platform brings transparency to the UN and other organizations' operations. And it allows the best ideas, no matter their source, to rise to the top and shakes up the usual bureaucratic top-down decision-making culture. 

Delarue and Mindjet's Matt Chapman recently discussed implementing SpigitEngage for the UN Innovation program. Delarue stated that despite being a new platform, SpigitEngage is already crowdsourcing problems and solutions for the Syrian humanitarian crisis. What this proves to them is that the way forward is to change the UN from within by way of technological innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit. 

Motherboard: You note that language is a big stumbling block in educating of refugees. How is Mindjet's SpigitEngage platform attacking the problem?

Olivier Delarue: What we're dealing with is a population of 43 million people forced to leave their homes. Ten million of them are refugees, 5 million of which are hosted in refugee camps, while another 15 million are internally displaced within their own countries. The rest are hosted in urban settings. They arrive in a new country, and often times this country has a different language. It's hard to attain some normalcy in your life when you don't understand the language, the customs, and from an education standpoint the criticisms that you're going through.

You also have to put this in the context of trauma. Arriving in the context of a refugee camp when you're uprooted from your country and family, and you don't speak the language, is quite difficult... Crowdsourcing helps generate ideas from refugees to deal with sets of challenges, and overcoming the language barrier is a major problem. It's a way to give a voice to the voiceless. This platform has generated more than 60 ideas that are really groundbreaking.

What was the development process of Mindjet like within UN Innovation and Ideas groups?

Delarue: We were looking for a platform that could be used in a very versatile way across staff, partners, and refugees. That's why we were looking at a platform that could move from web access into mobile, because most refugees have access to mobile phones now. We also wanted to have this ability for collaboration by capturing the rhythm of the crowd through the innovation of ideas online, which can occur through social media and other platforms.

Matt Chapman: We typically work with corporate organizations, and they have an infrastructure to be able to access and connect with the SpigitEngage tool. So, we had to test this, making sure the way we configured and created a data solution for them was very much in mind with the need to be lean and have a sense for a quick way of being able to work with something that is data intensive.

How has this platform evolved into its current UN form?

Chapman: Usually, we work in a more strategic direction, where we present what we call “innovation challenges” to the crowd itself, which is a great source of finding ideas and solving problems. But, we also changed our platform so that we could get the problems from the crowd that they wanted us to help them solve. We were able to do this by using the Language Development Toolkit in our platform, where it can simply change the word around ideas, and ask people to propose problems and solutions in the field. And we can scale this across their organization.

When you say crowdsourcing, the sources could be coming from anywhere, right?

Chapman: It's coming from a variety of sources. It could be coming from someone at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, from someone in the field, or from the refugees themselves.

Mindjet is already in use in Syria. What sort of information is coming in through the platform right now?

Delarue: We don't have exact numbers on how many people are using it in Syria because it's an emergency situation. And the people on the ground haven't really mastered the tool yet, but it will come in the next iterations and challenges. Our game is to have about 4,000 people active on the site at any given time. We're building it in an organic fashion.

"It's totally transparent, and this is benefitting our bureaucratic organization in a positive way. It gives a voice to the lower-ranked staff, which is important."

The platform also offers us information on who is being active, as well as where and when. It allows us to activate and inspire the crowd in the spirit of collaboration, which is something new. It allows us to iterate ideas—an idea comes out and can be refined and improved. So, we'll have more users in the next iteration.

The platform leverages game mechanics. How so?

Chapman: We have some key game mechanics to engage with people. We have things in the system like points, where we're able to track and award people points for submitting an idea, as well as put in a comment or vote on an idea. There are a couple of leader boards, so people can see how they're contributing within the community and what their performance is when measured against people.

We also have something more interesting and subtle called a Reputation Rank, which tries to signify quality based on what the crowd thinks of you. They can vote on your idea and comment, which enhances reputation. This allows Olivier and his team to see who is consistently making contributions to these engagements, and then they're able to work more closely with those people, or provide them training if they really want to be involved.

In what other ways do you see this platform impacting UN Innovation, whether right now or in the future?

Delarue: It really speaks to the power of transparency. This algorithm elevates the best ideas, which are then reviewed by a leadership community. Any idea is totally open to comments, and people can see an idea literally going up the ranking. It's really breaking this idea of opacity of organization. It's totally transparent, and this is benefiting our bureaucratic organization in a positive way. It gives a voice to the lower-ranked staff, which is important. The before and after picture is spectacular because of how cloud computing encourages collaboration.

The idea of transparency in this context is quite interesting. Instead of keeping politicians or bureaucrats honest, it's all about fostering collaboration and the elevation of the best ideas.

Chapman: Absolutely. One of the differences of crowdsourcing is that we're not just sourcing the ideas and solutions, but we're sourcing the ones that they feel are the strongest. It very much supports that transparency. What we've found out is that it's very difficult to know what is a good idea, but by including the crowd in the decision-making process, it helps us get past the problem where people feel disconnected after their idea has been abandoned. While their individual idea may not have succeeded within the community, the idea commented and voted upon as a group rises to the top, and that's a very nice part of the engagement equation. In other words, the crowd feels that they won collectively instead of individually. 

Delarue: It's a very critical tool to demonstrate and talk about the openness of ideas, which is important at the UN, an organization often seen as opaque. Not only are we open for business, but we're open to new ideas. I've been at the UN for 21 years and I'm an innovator and entrepreneur—I'm trying to change the UN from within. Change is complicated, and this is a very genuine, very smooth and non-threatening process that is driven by technology, but technology with a human side.