Technology Tools For Social Change

At VSee we have several people who are passionate about improving the situation of refugees around the world.  They volunteer their time, knowledge, and resources to make a difference in the lives of refugees.  In the past VSee has taken a very active role in supporting the cause, so in honor of the upcoming World Refugee Day on Monday, June 20 put together by the UN Refugee Agency, I thought I’d highlight a project discussed in a talk Milton and Yuen-lin gave in January, which involves helping Darfurian refugees personally connect with the rest of the world.  (The part I’m talking about is Yuen-lin’s section and starts at 34:00, but the other part of the talk is very interesting, too!)

Where is Darfur?

Darfur is a Texas-sized region along the western border of Sudan (in yellow).  Rebels from Darfur attacked a government air base in 2003.  Since then, the Sudanese government has been “punishing” the people of that region–burning villages, poisoning wells, maiming people, raping women, kidnapping children, etc.–to the extent that the U.N. considers it genocide.  More than 300,000 Darfurians have been killed.

Almost 3 million have been forced to leave their homes.

Of those, more than 270,000 have run or walked to U.N.-run refugee camps along the eastern border of Chad and have lived there for the past 7 years.  These 12 U.N. refugee camps located in dry desert regions have little or no means of surviving on their own, and there is little future for the children there.  For the 48 primary schools existing, only a fraction of the students will go on to one of the 6 secondary schools existing.  In one school, 7 classrooms hold 1730 students; in another 1 teacher instructs 80 students.

Social Networking for Darfur’s Refugees

Enter i-Act, a non-profit that wanted to find a way to give voice to the refugees, to allow them to tell their personal stories for themselves.  The solution was Commkit, a simple, safe social networking toolkit that allows refugees to easily take and upload pictures or videos, read and respond to messages, or occasionally even to stream live video.  Through a two-way dialogue, they have the means to develop personal connections and form partnerships with the international community.

Why Can’t They Just Use Facebook?

How do you create a software that allows a child living in a place with no water, no electricity, no Internet access, a paranoid government, and almost all supplies brought in by U.N. trucks, connect to the rest of the world on a regular basis?  You can’t just design software; you have to consider and plan for the whole she-bang, like a satellite modem for broadband Internet access, a solar-powered charger for electricity, an easy-to-use software program that protects identity and works no matter how bad the Internet connection is.  That’s what Commkit does.

For those of you interested in the more technical aspects of the project, you might want to listen to Yuen-lin explain things in the video talk above (starting at 54:44).  Unfortunately, my understanding only went as far as 1) it’s got to work even when it’s offline, 2) a lot  about syncing, 3) never send the same data twice, and 4) Groovy on Grails is the key.

Who Else Can Use It?

Commkit is still evolving, but it’s already making a difference.  It connects refugee children through the Darfur Dream Team Sister Schools Program which currently has 225 schools in the U.S. adopting and supporting a secondary school in a Chadian refugee camp.  The U.S. school helps by raising funding to construct buildings, collecting learning materials and supplies, and recruiting qualified teachers for their sister school.  With Commkit, the refugee children can send videos and pictures of building updates and engage in rich communications with sister school students in the U.S.  Both sides can build deeper friendships and more personal relationships than they could with only a few simple letters a year.

How Can I Help Refugees?

There are a so many ways to be involved in the refugee effort.  Check out some of the links below for more information and ways to be a part of the cause.

UNHCR’s list of things you can do

i-Act’s list of things you can do

A discussion of root causes of conflicts in Africa

Amnesty International information on Sudan

Concern Worldwide–a recent visit to a refugee camp

One thought on “Technology Tools For Social Change

  1. Pingback: It’s World Refugee Day! « VSee

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