In April the European Commission (EC) announced that it is working to provide its citizens access to safe and top quality digital services in health and care.
Most people in Europe remember the picture of the Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi being washed on the shores of Turkey, sparking a heated debate about solidarity in the midst of what was termed ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe.
The outcry to better receive, support and integrate refugees was not only met by a surge of humanitarian initiatives, but also hit the tech sector. Apps, websites, social networks – a surge of digital initiatives tried to capitalize on technology to aid vulnerable refugees, in particular in Germany and Central Europe.
Fast forward nearly three years later, the initial euphoria has settled – what has remained of the ‘tech4refugees’ hype?
Struggle with translation? Download Tarjimly, an app that connects refugees with a community of 2500+ volunteer translators. Registering with authorities, going grocery shopping, visiting a doctor – the app promises qualified support for for refugees from 16 languages, including Arabic, Somali or Burmese.
Need a new job? Social Bee is a platform that facilitates hiring refugees through supporting the full cycle from recruitment over job preparation, language trainings and cultural integration. Founded in 2016 in Munich, it is dubbed the first ‘integration service provider’ and the winner of several innovation awards .
The list of digital initiatives goes on infinitely. Refunite is an online platform helping families dispersed by migration to reconnect. Moni supports refugees to receive payments online without the need of a bank account or identity card. Chatterbox offers refugees to capitalize on their foreign language skills and find employment as online language tutors.
These are just few of the manifold examples of what has become known as ‘tech4refugees’, a term describing initiatives often driven by tech startups facilitating support to vulnerable groups through the aid of technology. Technology can be used creatively to help to overcome linguistic, cultural, or administrative barriers in the new home.
Sometimes tech startups are also simply providing faster response than the more corporate peers: Refugees Welcome, hailed the ‘first Airbnb for refugees’ emerged in 2014 and helped organizing shelter for more than 400 refugees in Germany during peak arrivals. The ‘real Airbnb’ came second – while the company has reached out to its hosts during emergency situations for years, it was only in 2017 that the ‘Open Airbnb’ was launched, allowing anybody to sign up for hosting someone in need.
‘404 Not Found’: Many of the tech4refugees initiatives are inactive today. The unprecedented rise of ‘tech4refugee’ apps and sites looks like a bubble that decided to burst.
This phenomena can be partly be attributed to initiatives specifically targeting short-term needs that naturally become obsolete as migration waves cool down, such as emergency housing at the peak of refugee arrivals. But this only partly explains the rapid collapse of many initiatives.
What went wrong? “Building too many things, and building things that weren’t used”, concludes a recent publication of German digital social innovation ThinkTank betterplace lab.
Especially in the peak wave period of refugees arriving, a plethora of initiatives was founded and funded, to provide services in every domain from housing over job opportunities to learning a new language.
In Germany alone, every week saw an average of four new tech4refugee projects launched during this ‘explosion phase’, according to the study ‘Digital Routes to integration‘.
NGOs, public agencies, corporations, startups alongside with citizens and volunteers all joined in the frenzied scramble of tech ideas to support refugees. Clarat refugees, an initiative that mapped over 7000 initiatives, handed over its operations after two years – apparently struggling to keep up with the sheer complexity of this landscape.
‘Fail fast and fail often’ might be the golden credo of agile tech development. However, the risks are considerably larger for vulnerable refugees relying on outdated information or apps that might disappear the next days, says Meghan Benton from the Migration Policy Institute. For example, it is easy to imagine the perils of outdated information on asylum processes or legal routes to integration.
Sadly, tech is not only a tool for those who are supporting the needs of refugees – it can also become a catalyzer for those posing a danger to their lives and well-being.
A recent study from the University of Warwick investigates the link between anti-refugee sentiments on Facebook and real-life hate crime in Germany – and found that “towns with an above-average use of Facebook experienced more violence against refugees“.
This suggest a correlation specifically between the use of Facebook, exposure to anti-immigration sentiment and violence. In Germany, the relatively new right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has heavily relied on social media for its quick rise in popularity, reaching 12,6% in the 2017 election. Facebook refused to comment on the study to the press.
We are now witnessing the highest level of global displacement. According to UNHCR, and unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home.
Technology can be a catalyst for innovative ways to deliver much-needed support to refugees worldwide – yet the lessons from the refugee crisis in Germany point to taking a careful look at which initiatives will really deliver the value they promise.
“Russia” and “social media” in the same sentence likely prompts images of online trolls, political meddling and fake news – but this is just the tip of the digital iceberg. While overseas the Russians have been accused of being shady manipulators of social media and international discourse, behind their own borders the Kremlin has stricter controls on digital expression than most Western countries, and isn’t trying to hide it.
Jail terms, censorship and data tracking are regular occurrences for citizens who use social media against government wishes – and even for those citizens who use it within the rules there are risks involved.
So, what makes social media in the former Soviet state unique? Well, you can set websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram to one side; it is VK, Odnoklassniki and Moi Mir which loom large over internet discourse in Russia. These obscure giants of social media – along with the legislation that guides them – offer an intriguing peek behind the digital iron curtain of today.
Big players, big regulations
You could be forgiven for not having heard of social media platforms like VK – even if it is one of the most visited websites on the internet. That’s because similar to Odnoklassniki or Moi Mir or RuTube or OK, the Russian social media platforms largely cater to Russian and Eastern European users. VK, also known as VKontakte which translates to InContact, is likely the best example of alternative social media for the Russians of today.
It is similar to Facebook in form but not in function. Users can upload photos and statuses to keep in touch with their friends, which could include any of the 500 million users from countries including Belarus and Kazakhstan, while also sharing copyrighted material. Videos and music sharing is fair play on the website – an ironic stance given some of the other regulations social media companies face when dealing with the Russian government.
Western brands of social media are still popular in this part of the world, but they must adhere to strict guidelines. Facebook and Twitter account for 20 per cent and 13 per cent of social media use in the country, respectively, but must jump through the metaphorical hoops laid out by Russian lawmakers.
For example, the data localization law enacted in 2015 requires foreign companies that possess Russian citizens’ personal data to store their servers on Russian territory, enabling easier access for security services. Ironically enough, Facebook and Twitter are among those that today appear to still keep their data housed out of Russia, whereas other tech giants like Apple and Google have bowed to regulations as reported by TechCrunch. At the end of the day, data and discourse are the two elements of social media which the Kremlin is actively trying to control.
Keeping an eye out
It is no mean feat to shape social media discourse but Russian legislators give it their best shot. Hundreds of thousands of websites are blocked every year, hundreds of thousands of users are censored and some even receive jail-time for stepping over the government line.
Case in point: A law from 2002 defines extremism as activities that aim to undermine the nation’s security or constitutional order, or glorify terrorism or racism, as well as calling for others to do so. Usually it is up to the courts to interpret such legislation and the definition of extremist material on the internet: and their view of the law can be very literal.
Take for instance this case: Anastasia Bubeyeva’s husband shared an image on social media in 2016 which depicted a toothpaste tube with the words “Squeeze Russia out of yourself!” For sharing this picture online with his 12 friends, her husband was sentenced to more than two years in prison. Or the story of a taxi driver who was sentenced to two years in prison under for comments he made on social media as reported by The New Kaliningrad. The posts in question were audio files posted to the encrypted platform Telegraph, which was subsequently shut down by Russian authorities.
According to the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, a Moscow-based nonprofit, hundreds of thousands of websites are blocked every year, often without proper justification. Several communication platforms were also newly blocked within the coverage period for failing to grant authorities access to user data. In 2017, internet freedom continued its downward spiral in Russia with over 115,000 recorded cases of censorship.
Is this the new norm?
Perhaps these stories and figures should not be too surprising given the news of the past few years. It has been widely alleged Russia used social media platforms to meddle with the 2016 US presidential election. It has been widely alleged that Russian trolls peddled fake news to anger citizens of foreign nations. Their ultimate disregard for freedom of information and freedom of speech translates into domestic social media policies which stifle debate and maintain control. But how does this stack up to other nations around the globe?
The most obvious comparison is China. The nation and their Great Firewall intentionally blocks access to selected foreign websites and throttles cross-border internet traffic. In this environment user data is also of the utmost importance. But while they block platforms like Facebook and Google outright, Russia is somewhat more flexible in their allowance. Their attitude allows the digital powerhouses to operate – but operate on a tight leash.
In some cases, the Kremlin’s demand for data storage is easier said than done. Earlier this year strict data laws left Russian telecommunication companies high and dry after coming into immediate effect without warning. The companies had only days from the release of policy detail to the passing laws to prepare for the storage of six months’ worth of citizen texts and calls.
Nonetheless, the Russians have a demonstrated appetite for data controls and speech controls. They have a track record of impacting social media discussion both at home and abroad and their stance on this digital issue does not look set to change any time soon. More regulation, more surveillance and more penalties appear to be the course for Russian rulings around social media.
On the 19-20 April, the third edition of Budapest Startup Safary will kick off in the Hungarian capital.
In just over a week, Budapest will transform into a bustling web of technology and startup innovation as the city welcomes the third series of talks and expert advice in the startup scene. The two-day event will bring as many as 4000 students, job seekers, founders and experts together for an insider’s view of the workings of startup technology.
During this time the city will play host to 300 plus events spread over 100 different locations in the centre of Budapest. The idea is that attendees get out and explore the different startup and corporate HQs, accelerators, co-working spaces and other hidden gems — such as the award-winning A38 boat — in order to mingle with tech and innovation talent in their natural habitats.
Alongside a plethora of technology startups, the event will see involvement from Government agencies like the Hungarian National Investment Agency (HIPA) and the Hungarian Intellectual Property Office who work closely with the local tech community. Larger corporates and financial organizations like OTP, NN Insurance, SAP Labs and Morgan Stanley will be showcasing innovation, sharing wisdom and scouting for potential new hires. Amongst the well-known homegrown heroes of the Hungarian startup ecosystem like Prezi or LogMein, visitors can also get to know the new generation of emerging innovation leaders like Shapr3D, a 3D modelling tool for iPad Pro which recently raised a 1.3 million USD investment round, Turbine.AI, an AI-based cancer research solution and Publishdrive, a global e-book publishing platform.
Zsofia Fekete project manager and head of operations at x Laboratories, one of the key organizers of Budapest chapter, told me “ From presentations on how corporates and startups can collaborate, or how to apply to accelerators, to one-on-one mentorship sessions with Hungarian and international mentors and coaches, we have created a content and event timetable which is supposed to add real value to people at all levels of the ecosystem.”
The Budapest event is an official chapter of Startup SAFARI, which was recently acquired by Pirate Global, the startup ecosystem builders behind the legendary invite-only Pirate Summit in Cologne. The first Startup SAFARI was organized in 2012 in Berlin and started rolling out events in up and coming locations across the CEE region, with the aim of offering visibility to local startups and creating networking opportunities between job seekers and big and small players within the ecosystem.
Manuel Koelman, Chairman and Co-Founder of Pirate Global told me: “The SAFARI movement is designed to offer the stage to interesting entrepreneurs who can help to push and grow their own local ecosystems. This is not about focusing on a small cluster in California, it’s about celebrating the real experience of startups, not the Techcrunch unicorn dream. We are less interested in the Fortune 500, and more interested in the Fortune One Million.”
Unlike the exclusive Pirate Summit — which the founders told me will be ‘tightening its door policy’ for its upcoming event in July– the SAFARI brand is designed to be as inclusive as possible. The event is designed to spark interest in ‘newcomers’ to the tech industry and hopes to inspire the next generation of local tech talent.
Visitors with interests that stretch further than the typical tech topics will also find interesting workshops and presentations about themes such as HR, coaching, gastronomy, education and lifestyle where they can learn about burnout, employer branding, vegan and “free” lifestyle businesses, meet digital nomads and get information about female empowerment in the innovation sector.
The event is primarily educational and designed to bridge the gap between businesses and local communities, but it will also offer further hiring potential for organizations who take part. This year 429 high school system-administration and software development students and 41 teachers will visit the event from rural areas throughout the country as part of the Infotanár Mentor Program.
Zsofia Fekete argues that the event has been proven to spark a real interest with Hungarian youth. She told me: “Last year when students from rural Hungary visited the Safary, the teachers told us the event had really changed the students attitude towards school: they got really motivated, and asked the teachers to give extra lessons, so that one day they can work at a company similar to those they had visited.”
Aside from local players, the event will also be host to a number of international media, VC and startup figures from Silicon Valley and further afield, including Tanya Soman from the Bay Area based VC fund and seed accelerator 500 Startups, Eddie Arrieta co-founder and president of PR startup Publicize and media incubator ESPACIO, and Ernest White II founder of Fly Brother, a TV and radio travel-show based in Florida.
Tickets are available here.