Refugees United

14th April 2012, London

Refugees United provided us with a unique opportunity to understand the challenges in defining digital identity. It was by far the best hack day I have attended in that the challenge was actually far simpler than it looked, and the solutions exciting to build.
Kevin Lewis, developer
  • Mission: The tech non-profit Refugees United works to reconnect separated refugee families through mobile and web technology. It needed some help to find ways to do this more effectively.
  • Outcome: Finding ways to identify individuals is a major challenge for Refugees United, as many names are very common and birth dates often misplaced. Developers spent most of one day researching this problem, and how to resolve it using mobile apps to assist the identification process
One solution used voice-to-text technology whereby refugees could tell stories from their local village – chances were that communities and families could be matched through local lore. An algorithm was written that matched the text to find matching stories, thereby matching people.

Another hack was a familial photo recognition engine, enabling matching of families through facial bone structure – not an exact science but surprisingly accurate when tested on the database of known, matched refugees.

The highlight for Refugees United was that in working out how to resolve a problem, the devs broke it down into its component parts, thereby isolating the greatest barriers and building solutions to that. This was way beyond their expectations of a few mobile app prototypes they could use to increase sign up. The facial recognition work was something they had been trying to build over a period of many months – so that was an immediate and unexpected win.

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