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Boston University Human Security Co- Lab: Appropriate Technology Solutions for Immigrant Resources

Our textbot is powered by a central database that aims to connect migrants to legal and critical aid resources throughout their journey.

Photo of Stephanie Garcia
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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

Aid organizations at the US-Mexican border are a key resource on the migrant journey, but they are often understaffed, do not have up-to-date information about aid at all destinations, and have no streamlined way of helping more than one person at a time. Moreover, NGOs have language barriers with migrants (particularly those from indigenous communities), and have no way of checking on people to see whether they have safely completed their journeys. Once migrants cross the border, they may lose their devices containing contact and aid information, and they will be separated, detained, and worse. This puts migrants outside the reach of an existing network of dedicated organizations, service providers and pro bono attorneys. This critical information gap is perpetuated by the roots of the problem: migrants living in the shadows are in a constant state of fear due to their status, and therefore don’t initiate help. We seek to change one moment—the one shared by all migrants at the border—to resolve this information gap and build long term bridges between migrants and host communities. Our solution addresses this information gap by drawing on the way people use existing technology. Our research has shown that migrants may use and lose many different phones, but a constant is that they use WhatsApp as a way to remain in contact with family and find resources. Our solution is twofold: First, we are developing a secure WhatsApp chatbot that allows migrants to message the bot in their own language, enter their location and need. The objective of this chat-bot is to help close that information gap between immigrants and service providers. Second, we are creating a volunteer-driven, up-to-date, database platform that the chatbot gets its information from regarding the availability and quality of services. This information is created by and validated by migrant rights NGOs and volunteers, and will later be validated and updated by migrants themselves on their journey.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

We will target migrants during their first point of contact with a migrant legal aid organization located at the US-Mexico border. Our current partner is Al Otro Lado, located between San Diego and Tijuana. We will start with migrants who come into contact with Al Otro Lado at the California border crossing, and focus on building up the resource database of common bus routes

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

An NGO like Al Otro Lado is a bridge itself: a bridge to volunteers, a bridge to legal protections or aid available in the migrants’ designation country, and a bridge physically helping migrants over the border. We seek to enhance these existing bridges by circulating information more effectively. Our mission extends beyond closing the information gap to shift power structures, so the most marginalized of our communities can access information and resources.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

Our idea goes beyond the logistical issues of relocation to helping connect migrants to the communities that will welcome them and the organizations desperate to help them. In this way, it shifts power structures between migrants, states, aid workers, and volunteers because it eventually alters the narrative between helpers and those being helped. Our chatbot and database will be initially inputted by community volunteers and aid organizations, but it will eventually be driven by migrants empowered to help other migrants on their common journey, by evaluating and disseminating aid information and best practices themselves. While the tool itself is necessary, the handoff over time from aid organizations to migrants themselves erases the boundaries between migrants and existing residents. It is, eventually, a permanent bridge, maintained by those who needed it most when they crossed.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

While our solution builds bridges between aid organizations, migrants, and communities, our organization itself builds bridges within the university community and between academia, the technology community, and the policy world. Our collaborative Lab at BU is student-led, linking student teams from different academic disciplines, working together to develop technological solutions to pressing migration issues. In partnership with the border organization, Al Otro Lado, an interdisciplinary team of computer science, computer security, public policy, and international relations students and expert mentors carefully researched and analyzed the way in which migrants safely and securely settle after crossing the border. This connection to the university setting allows us to not only rigorously research the problem, but also evaluate its impact effectively over time.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

The team spent 11 months interviewing organization staff working at all points in the migrant journey, and found that there is no formalized process nor community network for updated, valid information on key migrant services such as legal aid, translation and interpretation services, and shelter. One of the most revealing insights was that many migrants were using their physical bodies as a place to write important information. Because their personal items were never guaranteed to be safe from confiscation, migrants would write phone numbers of activists, attorneys, or organizations on their own bodies. This key revelation is what inspired the idea for our responsive WhatsApp chatbot. Lawyers and activists were willing to give our their personal WhatsApp phone number because they knew that once an immigrant crosses the border, that little piece of information might be the only resource they have.

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

Legal aid is the most important resource for undocumented immigrants but housing and interpretation and translation services are profoundly interconnected to the basic human needs of immigrants. The recent tragic cases of the deaths of migrant children at the border were in part due to the lack of translation services in the detention centers. Language barriers and inability to translate court documents increases gaps in communication and can often be the determining factor for an immigrants legal case. These three resources not only demonstrate the communities’ needs but also show that access to these resources can empower migrants to navigate the systems with knowledge and safety.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

Interviewing immigration service providers revealed the striking informalization in the way that information about aid is shared. Organizations, names of lawyers, and resources are circulated through word of mouth, showing that despite the lack of formal communication platforms, migrants are still able to access a community with resources. Depending on the city, once making contact with a central organizer like a church or a non-profit, an immigrant can then be connected to a community of organizations. We also found that many organizations create WhatsApp group messages to share resources, and also be a tool amongst people in transit to share information within the group. Our product leverages many of the practices that migrants currently use, and then goes further to address two major needs: creating a database that stores all the resources across the U.S and communicating that up to date and relevant information in a simple, easy to translate manner.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

Our partner organization, Al Otro Lado, is located in both the United States and Tijuana, Mexico. Their work at the border consists of educating migrants about their rights once crossing the border, resources in different destination cities, and preparing asylum seekers for their credible fear interview. The main struggle they see is that once migrants make it to a city or are released from detention, they don’t know where or who to turn to for help. We have developed a basic prototype tool for being able to use a cell phone to text the chat-bot for immediate help in finding a place to stay for the night or a translator that can help them in their court hearing. Our chatbot/database tool will help Al Otro Lado build bridges to migrants on their journey, but it will also help build bridges between Al Otro Lado and other organizations: they will be connected by a common database tool to update information that they do not individually have the capacity to organize.

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Being on the move, crossing borders, and/or temporarily settled

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Platform: Creating a community or market that facilitates interaction between users and resources

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Prototype: We have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.

Group or Organization Name

The Human Security Co-Lab at Boston University

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

The Human Security Co-Lab is an interdisciplinary partnership between the Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies’ Forced Migration and Human Trafficking Initiative (FHMT), BU Law’s Immigrant Rights and Human Trafficking Clinic, and BU Spark!’s Technology Incubator and Experience Lab at the Hariri Institute for Computing. All three organizations have extensive backgrounds in the proposed topic through academic research and the application of real-world solutions through the law clinic and prior professional roles. We bring both domain expertise in the fields of migration and technical expertise in the user-centered product development process which ensures that we are grounded in the actual needs of our users. Our access to a large pool of students to provide software engineering and data science skills with oversight from experienced software engineers is a cost-effective and sustainable approach to this increasingly expensive and inaccessible service.

Website URL:

Forced Migration and Human Trafficking Initiative: http://www.bu.edu/pardeeschool/research/fmht/ BU Spark: https://www.bu.edu/spark/

Type of submitter

  • We are a formal part of a University or Research Institution

Organization Headquarters: Country

United States

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Boston, Massachusetts

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Photo of Alejandra Aguilera
Team

Hello Stephanie, it is very interesting a to meet your idea in this challenge, due to the similarity with mine about data sources and data storage for migrants for human rights and social justice between USA- Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras too, let's keep in touch to have further collaboration with My[inte]gration data Cooperative https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/2019-bridgebuilder-challenge/review/my-inte-gration-co-op

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