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Hack Day Brings Tech Solutions to Refugees Seeking Family Members

BY Julia Wetherell | Friday, January 25 2013

Developers at last weekend's Refugees United Hack Day

The world population of refugees displaced both within their home country’s borders and to harboring nations numbers in the tens of millions. Four fifths of that population is accounted for in the developing world, where humanitarian crisis cuts across communities, often separating families. On January 19, London-based developers worked to create new solutions for reconnecting these families, at the second Refugees United Hack Day.

Founded in 2008, Refugees United is an organization that puts tech to work for families that have been separated by conflict, with a web and mobile platform and searchable database containing identifying information for thousands of displaced persons. A growing, user-driven network, Refugees United collects data in an anonymous forum from 183,000 current registered refugee profiles. In an email exchange with techPresident, communication manager Ida Jeng explained that the organization “is on a mission to register one million refugees by 2015.”

With the wealth of data at its disposal, Refugees United has brought on developers on several occasions to work at strategies for improving the program and increasing the likelihood that family members will find one another. Last April, a hack day turned up some transformative tools for the platform, including a mobile app that enables picture search and a program that matches individuals based on common family stories. The 2012 hack day was successful in “optimizing family matching and simplifying the Refugees United interface,” Jeng says, prompting the organization to hold a second event this year.

Hosted last weekend at the London Google campus, RefUnited Mod Day 2013 delved deeper into the organization’s data resources; one proposed improvement to the platform was the creation of a geonames database that indexes geographical information from profiles, streamlining the process of locating relatives. Another project improved on the platform’s spam filter; Jeng says one of the strongest takeaways from the 2013 hack was an SMS-enabled notification system that contacts users on their mobile phones when they have a profile match. Refugees United hopes to incorporate these solutions into the current platform, along with a program that modifies the story-matching concept from 2012 into a family-tree matching scheme.

Jeng says the next hack event for the organization will take place in Nairobi in early February; Kenya, which is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by conflict in Somalia and Sudan, is currently the biggest market for the Refugees United platform, and the country’s capital is a growing African tech hub.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

This article has been amended to correct the number of registered users on Refugees United; it is 183, 000, not 183, 320.

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