App provides digital roadmap to services for refugees

Hackathon in November 2016. | Photo courtesy of PeaceGeeks

With the growing number of refugees, globally and locally, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified a need to bridge the gap between service providers and refugees. That was when PeaceGeeks, a Vancouver-based non-profit organization, stepped in. 

Founded in 2010 in Vancouver, PeaceGeeks uses global operations and leverages technology to promote peace. Their mission is to help changemakers create a greater impact through technology. The UNHCR surveyed refugees to assess their needs and the response was that they required a quick way to connect to the services they needed. PeaceGeeks organized hackathons and as a result, Services Advisor was created.

Bridging the gap

Services Advisor is a web app that allows users to quickly search and filter through a large database of services based on user circumstances. Services available range from food and water to shelter, medicine and counseling services. The advanced filtering capabilities allow users to search by type, location, and proximity. Other features include maps as well as analytics to see most accessed services. In addition, the app is also available in Arabic as well as English.

Anita Naidu, head of business development at PeaceGeeks, says that the app was initially deployed in Jordan in 2015 in partnership with the UNHCR.

“It’s a digital roadmap for refugees so that they can understand how to access services,” says Naidu. “It takes a very overwhelming process and makes it easily digestible.”

Moreover, the app can also help service providers to refer the person in need of assistance to other nearby services that they may deem necessary. For example, if a child is not in school, they can be referred to the nearest elementary school in their vicinity.

The app is also expected to launch in Somalia and Turkey soon after its initial success in Jordan. There will be an estimated 3.5 million end users for the app.

Google impact challenge

Anita Naidu, head of business development at PeaceGeeks | Photo courtesy of Anita Naidu

Services Advisor has earned PeaceGeeks a spot as one of five winners of the Google Impact Challenge. Google invited non-profit organizations to submit a technology-based project whose goal is to help solve social issues. They will be awarding $5 million across 10 organizations. The top 5 winners received $750,000 each while the other 5 finalists garnered $250,000 each. According to Naidu, this is the first time that the challenge has come to Canada. The PeaceGeeks project was picked amongst 900 other projects. Other finalist projects included an app from Food Banks Canada that diverts food away from landfills to people in need and a life-saving mobile platform developed by BC Children’s Hospital Foundation that can accurately diagnose pneumonia in children. Last week, the public had the chance to cast four votes for their favourite projects.

“We were up against legends like the Red Cross and it’s a real honour to be one of the five winners,” says Naidu.

The project would not have been possible without the help of volunteers who put in hours for everything from fundraising to grant writing and of course, software development. Naidu, an electrical and environmental engineer, previously worked for the Canadian International Development agency in Africa and Engineers without Borders. She also lived in the Middle East and worked on human rights films.

“Both experiences shaped my world views and helped me understand that technology can provide powerful solutions to problems on a global scales,” says Naidu.

As a result, her position at PeaceGeeks was able to marry her technical background and interest in human rights.

Naidu says that PeaceGeeks plans to use the funds from the challenge to deploy Services Advisor in BC and then across Canada as well.

“The biggest challenge is to make sure it’s kept up to date because services change so much,” says Naidu. “We have to be responsive to the effects of changing global events which can mean changes to services.”

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