We Can Do This: Civic Tech and the “Refugee Crisis” in Germany

This text has been adapted from remarks prepared by Ben Mason for his July 25 presentation at Civic Hall.

The arrival of over one million refugees in Germany in 2015-16 sparked an intense wave of civic engagement in the country. Scores of innovative digital projects were created to coordinate this engagement and support the process of refugee integration. Lavinia Schwedersky, Akram Alfawakheeri and I researched these projects, looking at their successes and failures, and betterplace labs published our report in June.

Our parent organization Betterplace.org is a crowdfunding platform for nonprofits, and the largest donation platform in Germany. Betterplace labs was started three years after the platform launched, in 2010, to be a nonprofit think-tank for civic tech. For the past seven years we’ve been doing project-based work in the area of civic tech: mostly research, but not entirely. Our team is based in Berlin, but the scope of our research is normally very international. We have carried out field research in 24 countries across five continents.

I said normally international, but this topic of innovation for refugees came to us. After the “refugee crisis” began in late 2015, we found ourselves right in the middle of something big.

The crisis was big news everywhere, but it’s important to explain what a dominant social and political topic this became in Germany. For weeks and months, it was by far the number one story in all the media. It was everywhere. Germany adopted an open-door policy for Syrian refugees in particular. In August 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a now-famous speech in which she declared “wir schaffen das”—we can do this.

And this really reflected the public mood. There was this huge spirit of collective action to respond and help people in need. Tens of thousands of people were moved to volunteer for the first time. People helped out in emergency shelters, serving food and distributing clothes; people volunteered to teach German classes; people went to railway stations to receive refugees who had just arrived in Germany to give them water and supplies and tell them where they needed to go next. It was truly inspiring and, as a migrant to Germany myself, really made me proud to live there.

And a subsection of all this engagement was digital projects. We saw dozens of initiatives emerging in our area of civic tech in response to the refugee situation. For the past two years we have maintained a database of the projects that we know about, which is accessible online here. We currently know of 112 projects within Germany, and around 50 more internationally.

Eight months ago we received funding from the German government to research the phenomenon more intensely. Since January, my team and I conducted 78 interviews that formed the basis for our report.

One of the things we found is that the kinds of people and teams behind these projects had different backgrounds and approaches. But within that diversity there were also some recurring patterns. We developed a typology of six different organizational types, all of which fall under the overall banner of “civic tech” but are very different in terms of their approach, the kind of support they need, and their chances of success.

Several projects were set up by students or recent graduates, who we categorized as ‘Newbies.’ Workeer, for example, is a job-matching platform for refugees to find work and employers open to hiring refugees. It was created by two design students as their final project in their degree course, and then after they graduated they took up the project full-time. This category shows the way in which civic tech is changing with the younger generation to be a more widespread and mainstream thing. Most of the Newbies weren’t consciously deciding, “we want to use the power of technology to tackle social challenges.” They just wanted to help and their generation is more likely to reach instinctively for a digital approach.

Another category we called the Social Entrepreneur, who is typically older with professional experience and more of a social business mindset. One example of a project by a Social Entrepreneur would be HiMate, a platform where refugees can get vouchers for things that let them participate in society and culture more, such as free theatre tickets. Previously the founders worked at commercial tech start-ups, but they had the idea for this project and have been working on this full time. Social Entrepreneurs have tended to be the most focused on fundraising, because they prioritize getting their projects on a solid financial footing so they can work on them full-time. They also tend to be the most successful, which probably has to do with their mindset and pre-existing networks.

A third category we called the Hackers. These are projects that mostly emerged from existing networks and the overall subculture of hackers, the kind of people who have a day job in software development and like to go to meetups and hackdays in their spare time to come up with new hobby projects. This group is very community-oriented, very consensus-driven. In many cases this has made them really slow to come up with anything because they get stuck in these long discussions about what their strategy should be. Also, because everyone’s doing it in their free time there’s no clear structure and, all in all, there’s a lot of talking and not much action.

One hacker project which went well, however, was Volunteer Planner. I described earlier how thousands of people saw TV images of refugees arriving and wanted to help out in emergency accommodation. Well, a group of hackers put together a super-basic site over just a few days to let the shelters list what needed to be done and volunteers could sign up for shifts. It was basic but it was very heavily used because it was exactly what was needed to get the chaos a bit more under control.

That’s three of the six types and in the report we go into a bit more detail about their characteristics and how they interact with one another. For example, the Hackers, who are working on projects in their spare time, are critical and suspicious of the Social Entrepreneurs and their impulse to follow the money.

In addition to looking at the characteristics of individual projects, we also took a more macro view to see how this community as a whole emerged and developed.

In early 2015, there was just a handful of projects. There was a dramatic spike at the time of peak arrivals that we refer to as the Explosion period. There were new projects sprouting up left and right. During September and October 2015 there were an average of four new projects launching each week.

A graph showing civic tech activity over time. (Courtesy betterplace labs)

As you can probably imagine, this was a phase characterized by a lot of energy and a sense of urgency. But it was also very chaotic—everyone focused on getting own thing launched as soon as possible, not very aware of all the other projects that other people were working on.

Unsurprisingly, this led to quite a lot of fragmentation and duplication. Five different projects all tried to do essentially the same thing—map support services available to refugees in Berlin. Five different websites, five different front-ends, five different category and tagging systems, a lot of inefficiency.

Five images of apps that all accomplish roughly the same thing. (Courtesy betterplace labs)

But by March 2016, the number of new projects launching was way down, and we moved into what we describe as the Consolidation phase.

Now there are not only fewer new projects, but the projects that do exist become more open and receptive to talking to each other, working together, pooling their efforts. In the report, we look closely at this process of consolidation and what is helpful or obstructive.

One of our other findings was that the challenges these civic technologists are trying to address are also extremely dynamic, a moving target. The needs of a refugee change over time. In the first hours and days after arrival they need food and shelter, and as they progress through the asylum process more long-term priorities start to come into play like learning the language, getting qualifications, finding a job.

This moving target has tripped some projects up. When you have a situation that’s developing very quickly, you end up with a mismatch in timelines between a very dynamic topic and the time investment needed to build high-quality software.

The so-called refugee crisis also prompted lots of people to get engaged for the first time, and to try out different kinds of civic tech approaches. But these were often people with no previous experience of working on migration issues, and limited understanding of the complexity of the issues involved.

This is a challenge that we have yet to solve: How to harness the energy and skill sets that new people bring, while also creating a constructive dialogue with established organizations that have a firmer understanding of what needs to be done.

And besides talking to existing organizations, we should of course be talking to refugees themselves. This is an area where there’s been a really encouraging development over the past two years—from talking about refugees to talking with refugees.

It took some time, and many projects in the early days flopped because they didn’t really understand the group that they were trying to help. A good example are orientation apps. People saw that refugees arriving in a new city were often completely lost: they didn’t know where anything was, where they had to go to register for social security, what other support services were available to them, and so on. So lots of orientation apps were developed, mostly for an individual city, so that people first arriving could get the most fundamental information.

These projects, and there were several, seem to have barely been used. The reason is that even though they correctly identify a problem, they do not offer a solution which fits with their target group. Although smartphone usage is widespread, particularly among Syrians, among large parts of the population smartphone usage is limited basically to Facebook and WhatsApp. If you build an app that needs to be downloaded, or even just a website for a browser, that creates a high barrier for a large number of potential users.

As I say, there are signs of improvement, and more and more projects are working to get input and feedback from refugees into the product development process.

The logical extension of this is another of our six types: Newcomer-Led. Even better than talking with refugees to get a better understanding of what digital products might be helpful to them would be empowering them to build their own projects.

If you ask me where this movement of civic tech for refugee integration is heading, I would hope for more of this—a shift from supporting to empowering, and working together with refugees as equals to build inclusive societies that benefit everyone.

Ben Mason works at betterplace lab, a nonprofit think-tank in Berlin.