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Vital Information Agency (VIA)

VIA will deliver local information to help IDPs access services and thrive, through a mobile app that can sync through mesh networking.

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

Since 2017 we regularly survey Syrians about practical information for navigating daily life, including road safety, school updates, medical care services, local economic information, transportation, job listings, and much more. This year we surveyed 1600 respondents over 4 governorates. When asked whether they find enough information about 23 different types of information, an average of 72.2% replied “No” or “Not Really”. This is despite the fact that 96.5% reported access to a smartphone and 95.1% use it daily. Syrians live in a fragmented country with a destroyed economy and no public services. Humanitarian actors, local administration, and civil society provide services, but a hostile environment makes it difficult to reach their beneficiaries. For IDPs the need is even greater, having lost their social support network. In our 2017 assessment, displaced people considered 11 of 17 information types as “crucial”, compared to 5 of 17 by non-displaced. We also found that the majority of displaced people also had access to the internet – although they could pay for less than 1 hour per day, on average. The need is growing as organizations and services proliferate in the support ecosystem. To be relevant, information needs to be local, which INGOs cannot provide. Disinformation has also damaged public trust. Since 2017 our local teams have been delivering essential information to Syrians using their most trusted medium: Facebook. But Facebook is not searchable and uses data, creating costs for the most vulnerable. Vital Information Agency (VIA) will help people cope with daily life, providing geo-localized information through a low-bandwidth mobile app that can sync through wireless mesh networking, decreasing costs by serving users without internet access. A one-stop-shop for information will consolidate the array of sources and decrease reliance on rumours and word of mouth, especially for IDPs.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

VIA was designed by and for displaced Syrians, for the Syrian context. The Pax Syriana Foundation and its member organizations began delivering essential information in Syria as it became clear that information is an additional battleground and that people are suffering as a result. VIA is a tool that will bring essential information delivery to scale, and while it is designed for the Syrian context, it could be localized and deployed in other complex humanitarian crises.

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)

By helping displaced families navigate services and their environment, we alleviate inequality, mitigating social tensions and exclusion. While the displaced rely more heavily on information services, the information is helpful to residents as well, creating cultural reference points through a shared local institution. Through a multi-sector partnership with civil society and media, VIA brings together displaced and resident populations to build a service that meets the needs of everyone.

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

Our definition of essential information far exceeds what the humanitarian sector generally prioritizes, including some of the most sought-after types of information that are much less obvious. It includes information for survival: humanitarian aid, safety updates updates and warnings. But beyond this, we emphasize information needed for resilience – medical care information, disease and public health, first aid advice, electricity and water provision, agricultural advice - and development – job listings, exchange rates, psycho-social care, commodity prices and availability, mobility and road safety. This concrete information empowers people to make the best decisions for their families. While the circumstances are incredibly difficult, information provides a semblance of control, giving people the dignity of choices in their daily lives.

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

In a community that has fully implemented VIA, arriving IDPs will be directed to the service by humanitarian agencies and administration, as a one-stop-shop for orientation information and references. Both displaced and non-displaced people will spend less time and money looking for information and will more easily access services to take care of their own health and safety. Using our baseline studies on information needs, we will re-survey the same communities once VIA has been fully implemented to see how their responses have changed; how often they find the information they need and how long they spend looking for it. There will also be a “supply-side” benefit for the clinics, aid agencies, and civil society organizations who distribute their information, because users will be able to provide feedback to the information distributed. We will be able to report this feedback to partners and help them identify how to best serve and communicate with their target populations.

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

This idea comes from 8 years of working with creative, resilient Syrian professionals determined to help people and retain their dignity despite inhumane conditions. Syrian organizations are providing the majority of aid services to their suffering populations, addressing basic needs like food and medical care, but also protecting their country’s future: delivering books to children in “mobile library” vans, organizing sit-ins to raise awareness of the treatment of female ex-detainees, hosting call-in radio programmes where citizens hold local administration accountable, organizing free lawyers’ associations to help people protect their property, and countless other resourceful initiatives. VIA will help them reach their target audiences, specifically IDPs who struggle because they lack information about the services and resources available. Our inspiration was to create a service that both helps IDPs integrate and thrive while also helping Syrian civil society reach beneficiaries.

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

VIA will be tested in 30 non-government held communities in Syria, including 20 IDP camps, both formal and informal, and 10 towns. The sample includes small and large settlements, some in which IDPs live with residents, and some where they are separated. The project is integrated within each community, partnering with local civil society organizations who distribute information, increasing their engagement with target groups. These communities experience tension between residents and IDPs, who are often seen by residents as competitors for jobs and resources, and are increasingly discriminated against by landlords and employers. While the entire community suffers the violence, destruction, and economic consequences of war, displaced people lack the social networks and knowledge to access services, making them more vulnerable. The resulting inequality heightens resentment, social exclusion, and makes displaced youth vulnerable to antisocial behavior and even extremist recruitment.

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

VIA is focused on helping local civil society distribute services, not introducing an outside service provider. While foreign aid is crucial to the survival of many communities in Syria, it is distributed primarily by Syrians and Syrian organizations, who have proven their capacity to innovate and solve problems. VIA helps them be more effective, from physicians who work despite the threat of bombings, to distributors of educational magazines for children. VIA leverages work being done by Syrians and helps them reach displaced people who lack connections. Our surveys have shown that target populations are well equipped to use VIA, with 95% having access to a smartphone. We also asked about the age and model of their phone to design VIA for the most common hardware, including older and cheaper phones. In a future stage, we will add a feature to stream local independent radio, which provides crucial information and builds social cohesion, and a messaging system through the mesh network.

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

Al Bawaba is a network of local media teams in cities across Syria who research and distribute essential information through facebook. This service publishes over 700 updates a month and currently has a monthly reach of 2.3 million. We also work with SMART News Agency, one of the first independent Syrian news agencies. SMART provides a consistent information management process across the project, ensuring journalistic quality and rigour as well as bringing credibility. Qaul.net is a Berlin-based group of developers adapting the wireless mesh networking technology, which they developed for other volatile humanitarian contexts. To implement the test, we identified around 50 local organizations as information sources– uploading geo-localized directories, announcements, and information about their services to potential beneficiaries through VIA. They include aid agencies, hospitals, local councils, media organizations, and a variety of local civil society organizations (CSOs).

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 Pax Syriana Foundation

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

The Pax Syriana Foundation is a federation of Syrian organizations: Akillica, Al Bawaba, SMART News Agency, and ASML/Syria. It was created to coordinate the actions of these organizations - which each have different strengths - toward long-term goals for the future of Syria. ASML/Syria is a media development NGO, Akillica is a microenterprise and local development organization, and SMART News Agency is the most prominent independent news agency in Syria. Al Bawaba is a network of local media teams in cities across Syria who research and distribute essential information. All came from the 2011 Syrian civil society movement, responding to needs of the population, particularly for information. All three were founded or led by displaced Syrians and at least half of their staff are displaced Syrians. Thereby all projects launched by the group or its members are designed in close consultation with the beneficiaries, both through surveys as well as the lived experience of our team.

Website URL:

View the dynamic mockup of VIA here: https://projects.invisionapp.com/share/8QQ3A4HJN97#/screens/342151522_01-Home-Alerts- Our member organization websites: www.asmlsyria.com www.smartnews-agency.com www.bawaba-sy.com

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country

France

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Paris
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Attachments (5)

Vital Information Agency (VIA).pdf

Concept Note: Vital Information Agency (VIA)

14. Fuel@2x.png

UI Mockup: Fuel Prices

12. Bites & stings@2x.png

UI Mockup: Health Advice (Bites & Stings)

01. Home (Alerts)@2x.png

UI mockup: Home

07. Directories@2x.png

UI mockup: Directories

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Photo of Uchenna Okafor
Team

Hi Jenna Hornsby! Very insightful approach to reducing vital information asymmetry. Yes; distinction between success and failure lies in the quality of available information. To this extent, is there any provision in your design to cater for the special need of blind users? Put differently, how compatible is this App with popular speech accessibility Apps?

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