ICTs & Refugees

DPEW’13 group photo – Stellenbosch, South Africa

Excited to have our research on Syrian refugees highlighted in The Economist as well as an NPR Marketplace CodeBreakers podcast on technology across borders. See my media page for  more details.

My work on ICTs and displacement, with a focus on refugees, builds on my previous work on inter-organizational coordination and multi-level governance in ICT use for humanitarian relief and aid organizations. This recent work focusing on refugees was initiated as an NSF-funded workshops on Robust Socio-Technical Architectures in Support of Displaced Persons in December 2013 and a second workshop in April 2016.

Knowledge gained through these workshops and extensive field research conducted primarily with UNHCR are reflected in my upcoming book: Maitland, C. F. (Ed.) Digital Lifeline? ICTs for Refugees and the Displaced (MIT Press, expected publication date spring 2018)

The following chronicles our activities, with the most recent first.

Data-enabled Community Asset Mapping (Field Research July 2017 – Kigali Rwanda)

In this project Ying Xu will work with UNHCR staff to further expand upon the system design and implementation begun in Za’atari camp, Jordan (see below). Critically, this project will test the merits of the data-enabled approach and system design among urban refugees. We also seek to understand the extent to which the data collection and management activities can foster a sense of community, an important component of psychological welfare for the displaced, independent of data use for problem solving. This analysis will test the merits of the approach even if only community leaders or the highly educated (hence limited numbers of refugees) eventually use the data.

Technology Evolution in Cash-Based Assistance to Refugees (Field Research March 2015; May 2017 – Kigali Rwanda)

In this project honors student Katelyn Sullivan expanded research begun in March 2015. During the initial field visit, data were collected on an innovative mobile phone-based cash assistance program managed by WFP. However, by 2017 the program was being replaced by an ATM card-based system. The reasons for this seemingly backward trend in technology were not completely clear. This project seeks to identify the variety of factors, including the technology and user context, as well as inter-organizational relations and strategic goals that caused the change in programs. This is an interesting case exemplifying the sometimes non-linear path of technological diffusion.

Community Asset Mapping (Field Research March, August, November 2016 – Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan)

Our initial work on mobile and internet access and use, led to a study of the potential for refugees to collect and analyze data on their own capacities and assets as a component of an Asset Based Community Development approach. Community-led development is a focus for UNHCR and developing tools and processes for mapping assets and capacities, whether on physical or online cartographic maps or through other information products, will help provide a critical tool in community development and recovery.

This project, conducted together with Ying Xu, Karen Fisher and Brian Tomaszewski, involved several dimensions, including first understanding how refugee problems are identified, generating insights into how refugees gather information throughout the day, and whether or not and if so how a system for both data collection and cartographic mapping might be developed. The findings of this research are still being finalized. Below is an interim report provided to UNHCR on the information flows associated with community gatherings in the camp. The analysis highlighted the challenges of more systematic processing of meeting minutes and led to the development of a new system based on Excel.

Maitland and Xu 2016 Community Gathering Information Flow Analysis

Publications and Presentations:

  • Xu, Y. and Maitland, C. F. (under review) Mobilizing Assets: Data-driven Community Development with Refugees.

January 2015 Refugee Mobile Phone and Internet Access Study – Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan

In January 2015 a team of 7 U.S. researchers visited Za’atari Refugee camp to scope the potential for a collaborative research project with Jordanian colleagues. By way of establishing relationships and a baseline understanding of camp infrastructure and use, we conducted a study of internet and mobile phone use by camp residents in collaboration with UNHCR and its partners.

The resulting January 2015 Za’atari Refugee Youth Internet Use Survey was a collaborative effort of faculty and students from Penn State University, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of Washington. The data were collected with partial support of U.S. National Science Foundation grant #1427873.

In support of open data initiatives in both the U.S. scientific and international humanitarian relief communities, the survey data and instruments are available below. The data are fully anonymized and the survey instrument underwent extensive vetting to insure research subjects’ protections. We ask that you use these research products in the spirit of the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. The data and instruments may be cited as: Maitland, Tomaszewski, Belding and Fisher (2015) January 2015 Za’atari Refugee Youth Internet Use Survey Data, http://cmaitland.ist.psu.edu/?page_id=335.

While not required, please drop us an email at cmaitland@ist.psu.edu as we would like to get to know you and your work, continuing to build a community of interested researchers and practitioners.

The survey background, motivation, instrument development, collection and cleaning processes are all described in this document, Penn State Za’atari Survey Data Notes January 28 2015

The data and codebook are available in both .csv and .xls format.

Here is the Za’atari 2015 final report submitted to UNHCR in November 2015. The results were presented to various camp-based taskforces by Brian Tomaszewski and Karen Fisher during their November visit.

Publications & Presentations:

  • Schmitt, P., Eland, D., Belding, E, Tomaszewski, B., Xu, Y. and Maitland, C. (2016) “Community-Level Access Divides: A Refugee Camp Case Study,” Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ACM ICTD2015), Ann Arbor, June, 2016. pdf
  • Xu, Ying and Maitland, C. F. (2016) “Communication Behaviors When Displaced: A Case Study of Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp,” (Note) Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ACM ICTD2015), Ann Arbor, June, 2016. pdf
  • Yu, X., Tomaszewski, B. and Maitland, C. F. (2015) “Promoting participatory community building in refugee camps with mapping technology,” (Notes) Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ACM ICTD2015), Singapore, May 2015, DOI: 10.1145/2737856.2737883. pdf
  • Yu, X and Maitland, C. F. (2015) Communicating Abroad: A Case Study of the Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp. Regional ITS – Los Angeles, Oct 25-27, 2015. pdf
  • Maitland, C. F. and Yu, X. (2015) A Social Informatics Analysis of Refugee Mobile Phone Use: A Case Study of Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp. TPRC, Arlington, VA, September 25-27th, 2015. pdf

Our workshops also generated proposals and attempts at research collaborations with Jordanian academics, Nijad al-Najdawi and Sara Tedmori 

Following our January 2015 data collections, in March 2015, I accompanied Brian on a trip to Rwanda, where he provided mapping training to UNCHR partners in the Kigeme Congolese Refugee Camp. During that trip I also met with partners at WFP to discuss their use of mobile phones for refugee benefits distribution.