‘Mapping Nyumbani’: Empowering Refugees by Creating Safe Spaces – Samuel Hall Explores the Project in SAMUEL HALL STORIES – Oct, 2023

Using geofencing and community-led insights to map safe pathways for refugees escaping conflict or unsafe spaces during their migration journey — here is the story behind ‘Mapping Nyumbani’ in an interview with the project lead, Abdi Ambari.

Samuel Hall

By Tanya Kathuria

T echnology can change narratives and power dynamics. Technologies can also be used by states to control migration and borders, and limit rights. At Samuel Hall, we seek to feature stories and advance systems where technologies reinforce protection and human rights.

The use of innovative technology can create transformative development in the world. For refugees, technology can improve access to information, provide opportunities for livelihood and make it easier to access humanitarian aid. Technology used diligently can bridge the gap between refugees and available resources, services, and support systems.

We came across Tech4Good initiatives in the Digital Sprint, co-hosted by Samuel Hall, Techfugees Kenya, Cohere (formerly the Xavier Project), and UNHCR in February 2022 bringing together over 80 members from refugee and host groups in Kenya to leverage ideas, entrepreneurship, and digital livelihoods. Our research studies with partners like ILO, WUSC on digital opportunities for refugees as well as our conference paper for Dialogue on Tech & Migration highlights the gaps and opportunities that technology can provide for forcibly displaced people.

We decided to share this story to advance a conversation on the power of information to enhance refugees’ capacities to navigate unwelcoming and unfamiliar environments, and access vital resources.

Through apps, websites, and digital platforms, Tech4Good acts as a catalyst for refugees to connect with service providers, access legal assistance, find health services, and explore educational opportunities.

Tech4Good also focuses on refugees’ safety and security. GPS tracking and emergency alert apps during refugees’ journey or stay can provide a sense of security and peace of mind for refugees in often perilous circumstances. The “Mapping Nyumbani” project — “nyumbani” meaning “home” in Swahili is a system that works by sending live communication alerts via text message to refugees, informing them of potential dangers at various points of their journey. The project currently has around two or three regular participants in the community who actively contribute to the project.

To understand this aspect, Samuel Hall’s communications team interviewed Abdi Ammbari; the project lead of the Mapping Nyumbani Project.

Abdi, 24 is from Tanzania and is a recent graduate from New York University Abu Dhabi. His undergraduate program was an interesting mix of computer science, physical engineering, and sociology and taught students not only how to create technology but also to understand its societal impact.

Currently working as the communications lead at Na’amal, Abdi’s professional role aligns with his interests and to the work he is doing individually. His experience living in Tanzania and growing up with refugee communities around him influenced him to kickstart the Mapping Nyumbani Project.

  1. What led you to tech4good initiatives and specifically the Mapping Nyumbani Project?

AA: My background and journey have been shaped by a deep belief in the transformative power of technology. Growing up in a low-income context in Tanzania, I was always aware of the numerous problems faced by my community. Despite this, I couldn’t help but see the potential of technology in providing solutions. However, access to technology and knowledge was limited in the spaces I used to occupy as a child. This lack of exposure prevented me from delving into the world of innovation during my early years. Nevertheless, my passion for technology and its potential to create positive change remained steadfast.

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As part of my program at NYUAD, I began engaging in conversations about technology’s role in solving real-world issues. At first, these discussions were more general and focused on Western contexts. However, my passion for contextual innovation persisted, and I started considering how technology could be applied to address the specific challenges faced by countries like Tanzania and communities with unique needs.

A turning point in my journey occurred during a mapping class. The topic excited me, and I couldn’t help but think about its potential applications back home. My interactions with the refugee population in Tanzania exposed me to the issue of pedestrian migration, and suddenly, I saw a connection. I realised that mapping technology could play a crucial role in tackling this problem.

To better understand the contextual nuances, I sought out refugees who had experienced pedestrian migration, engaging them in conversations to grasp the intricacies of the problem. This firsthand knowledge helped me gain insights into the challenges they faced and the potential impact of a tailored technological solution.

Now, my project focuses on using technology, particularly mapping technology, to address the issue of pedestrian migration among refugees in my community. It’s an ambitious endeavour, but I am determined to make a difference by applying my passion for technology and my understanding of the context back home.

2. What kind of engagements have you had working with refugees?

AA: My experience with refugees has mostly been through volunteering in the past. Back home, our community was quite involved in assisting refugees who were entering Tanzania. We would often gather supplies and crops to support them in their settlement.

However, what truly inspired me to embark on this project was time working with Na’amal. During a brief period, I collaborated with them on communications-related tasks. Meeting Lorraine Charles, one of the co-founders, was a pivotal moment for me. I witnessed how an individual’s initiative could address an issue within the refugee population and make a meaningful difference. This was unlike the typical discussions about refugee aid, which usually focus on the efforts of large organisations like UNHCR. Seeing someone like me, an ordinary person, taking action and creating change was truly inspiring.

When I developed the initial concept for this project during class discussions, it didn’t end there as just another idea left behind in the classroom. Lorraine’s example stayed with me, and I thought, “Why not try executing this myself?” That’s when I decided to take a step forward and turn my idea into reality.

3. Can you describe what your project Mapping Nyumbani is all about?

AA: So, the core of my project revolves around geofencing.

Geofencing essentially creates virtual boundaries on a map, and when a device enters or exits these boundaries, certain actions or notifications can be triggered. For instance, you might have experienced geofencing when receiving relevant notifications upon entering a mall or after arriving in a new country/state.

In our project, we’re using geofencing to communicate crucial information to refugees as they navigate safe and unsafe areas. The challenge lies in defining the points of safety and danger. Commercial mapping software like Google Maps lacks detailed data in such remote and non-commercial areas such as the primarily rural areas in Burundi where we are focusing our pilot-product research. Therefore, we rely on community-driven mapping platforms like OpenStreetMap, where individuals contribute by defining and naming locations.

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To make this work, we engage with refugees to understand the paths they take, and where they feel safer or at risk. It’s crucial to interpret the reasons behind their feelings of safety to distinguish objective safety from subjective experiences.

Working with volunteers and different maps, we then identify these areas and create actual routes that refugees could follow. Once the maps and routes are developed, we implement various geofenced zones. When refugees enter these zones during their journey, they receive relevant notifications on their mobile devices.

The goal is to empower refugees with critical information, making their journey safer and aiding them in reaching their destinations more effectively.

4. How far along are you in the project?

AA: We are currently working towards piloting the project in Tanzania by describing potential routes into Tanzania from neighbouring areas that have a history of recurring displacement of people. Our ultimate goal is to create an adaptable model that can be used in similar situations beyond the refugee population. However, I chose to start piloting it with refugees, as it’s an area I’m familiar with from my experiences in Tanzania, where issues of safety for refugees trying to reach the country are prevalent.

The model not only involves using technology to help this population effectively but also revolves around defining metrics to describe locations as safe or unsafe. This framework ensures that when replicated, all aspects are carefully considered, including micro-factors that influence safety perception, such as looking for a police station.

Reaching out to the refugee population has been a fortunate journey. Being part of a diverse community at NYUAD helped me start this project by reaching out to friends and acquaintances with connections to the refugee community in Tanzania. I expanded my reach through social media and organisations, seeking more individuals to join the project.

Eventually, my approach evolved into physical mapping work, where dedicated team members on the ground in Tanzania are actively interacting with the community, verifying and updating the information provided by the refugees. Their invaluable assistance is propelling the project forward and strengthening its impact.

5. How easy or difficult is it for refugees to navigate the program?

AA: One crucial aspect of the technology is that it doesn’t require an internet connection for the person receiving the messages. They simply need a SIM card. During my conversations with the refugees, I wanted to ensure that this solution was suitable for them. So, I asked them about the things they always carry when leaving home for their journey. The common response among the interviewees was that they made sure to have a phone with them if they were able.

There is a significant uptake of cell phones, both smartphones and non-smartphones, during times of migration or separation in this specific context. Almost everyone has a cell phone, and even within their groups, at least one person possesses a phone. The key point is that they don’t necessarily need internet access or any advanced features; having a SIM card is sufficient.

This widespread presence of cell phones and SIM cards makes the solution highly viable and effective for reaching and assisting refugees during their journeys.

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6. Are there any data security risks as many refugees like to stay anonymous to avoid conflict?

AA: We are fully aware of the security risks involved in pinpointing someone’s exact location. While designing geo-fences and communicating safe areas, we’re currently focused on developing language that conveys safety without explicit disclosure.

When considering how to communicate the product safely, we’re exploring various suggestions, such as using familiar identifiers to indicate discussions about ensuring safety. We’re still in the process of developing a definitive approach.

The paths refugees take are not exclusive to them, and potential threats may already have knowledge of these routes. Our goal is to define safer paths with access to aid, effectively addressing safety concerns before they arise.

7. Can you elaborate on how this product is informed by directly learning from members of the refugee population?

AA: Our approach to interviews is characterised by genuine curiosity and a commitment to avoid being extractive. We engage with the refugees as individuals, seeking to understand their lives in a way that informs our project. Through these conversations, we’ve learned so much about each person’s unique experiences, from daily routines to school life, and it has been truly incredible.

One aspect of this process that I treasure has been the overwhelming sense of love and welcome within the refugee communities I’ve spoken to. There is so much warmth and hospitality that has touched me deeply. One thing that has resonated with people is our commitment to contextual relevance and inclusivity. We’re exploring translations in vernacular languages spoken by a large portion of the population. This approach has evoked a feeling of being seen by a space that is usually neglectful of specific contexts.Being part of this process has been truly rewarding and enlightening.

8. Is this a first product of its kind or are there any other examples of similar programs for refugees?

AA: To the best of my knowledge, it appears that the concept of merging the refugee problem with geofencing as a tech solution is unique and hasn’t been widely explored before. I’ve searched for data related to routing and maps depicting refugee routes, but the incorporation of geofencing seems to be a novel approach. I’m open to the possibility that I might be mistaken, and I hope that there are existing examples I simply haven’t come across yet.

9. According to you, what recommendations would you give the international community to make a more digitally and physically safer environment for refugees?

AA: What I want to express is that this idea goes beyond just this organisation; it involves everyone in the conversation about making the lives of refugees easier and safer. There’s space for anyone with ideas, strong feelings, or a desire to contribute to invest their time and see it through. I firmly believe that people are capable, and their contributions are needed.

As we move closer and closer towards execution, it’s essential to ground our product’s value system in the right principles, such as community involvement, listening to and understanding the voices of those we aim to aid, and constructing solutions that truly address their needs.

In the tech world, there is an abundance of solutions, and sometimes it can feel repetitive. Despite this, there’s always more to be done, and everyone can make a difference. That’s the message I want to share.