Refugees Hackathon

Design Technology Travel

Refugees Hackathon

This past week, I flew to Berlin to throw down with the Refugees Hackathon.

refugee True, I’ve been critical of hackathons in the past, but this one seemed like a great way to learn more about an issue (mass migration) that isn’t going away soon, meet some very cool people, and spend a week in my favorite city.


The hackathon covered a full three days. Rather than throwing a bunch of well-intended technologists at an experience they’ve never shared, the Refugees Hackathon organizers planned a requirements gathering workshop on the first day. They recruited refugees, translators, and facilitators, and instructed us to come up with good ideas to pitch the next day. The following two days were spent designing and developing these and other ideas.

Was it a perfect event, and did we solve the refugee crisis? Of course not. In fact, a lot of things could have been improved to make the event and its products safer and more effective. But I contributed to an effective project, and was inspired to think and write deeply about the operation of hackathons more generally.

The Requirements Workshop

With Zara Rahman‘s introduction, I was part of the event’s facilitation team, led by the very talented Barbara Ruhling. This intentional decision to listen to people familiar with the refugee experience before writing code (building “with” not “for”) was a big reason why I made the effort to attend

In hindsight, the agenda was ambitious, and perhaps overly so. The organizers expected the participants to create specific “work orders” to guide the hackathon, and this was just never realistic. The organizers also invited entirely too many reporters, and at times seemed more focused on self promotion than protecting the consent of the refugee newcomers they claimed to serve. But Barbara and our team did the best we could with such limited time, some good ideas did emerge, and many of the participants gained a new appreciation for the delicacy of working with vulnerable populations.

The Hackathon and LAGeSoNUM

The next day, dozens of developers pitched their projects. It felt like most were matching platforms – matching clothes to refugees, refugees to neighbors, volunteers to refugees, refugees to BitCoin, on and on. There were aggregators of platforms (“Apps for Refugees”).Translation was a big issue, as well. This felt like a reflection of the hurried requirements gathering the day before. People wanted to help, but didn’t know enough detail about the experience to be imaginative or create a transformative project. There were a two exciting exceptions.

  • Newcomers Radio. When communities migrate, it can take them years to set up formal channels to communicate among themselves and present a unified perspective to their neighbors. Think about Spanish-language newspapers in the Central Valley. Newcomers Radio envisions an easier entry to community-level discourse, where simple voice calls from any phone can integrate with call-in shows and podcasts. This idea was led by Chris Csikszentmihalyi, building off his work with Josh in Uganda for Rootio in 2013.
  • LAGeSoNUM. Much of the refugee experience in Berlin is spent waiting for one’s number to be called at the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales (State Office of Health and Welfare), abbreviated as LAGeSo. The numbers are displayed only on a small digital display, at the office, surrounded by barriers. Over 500 people a day arrive for processing in Berlin, but LAGeSo can only process 250 a day, so there are a lot of people waiting. LAGeSo has been criticized globally for its inability to better handle the situation. The LAGeSoNUM volunteer team can’t do anything to hasten processing times, but it can provide a system for people to check their number without having to be physically at LAGeSo. Having already built and tested this concept, they they sought help at the hackathon turning that number checking system into email and SMS alerts.
A privacy-conscious view of the infamous LAGeSo number display.
Unable to obtain consent for a photo of the area around the LAGeSo number display, this sketch gives the general idea.

Josh and I both chose to work with LAGeSoNUM. Before long, we both experienced the charm of the hackathon sprint – our team debated, wrangled, sketched, and got to work. I drafted a set of specific requirements, led a team verification review, mapped out the user flows, and created a new and complete mobile layout template in Sketch. I was both our defacto facilitator and threat modeler. With little sleep but lots of Club Mate, Josh built the SMS notification system.


On Sunday, we presented our work to the crowd.


We even picked up a little press.

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 9.52.57 AM

In addition, technology can not solve all problems, Ruth said from the project team: “You can not fix Policy with technology.”


There’s so much to say about the weekend. The media circus. The duplicative and distracting hackathon projects. The powerful stories from refugee newcomers. The struggle of managing volunteer developers. The challenge of running a multilingual event, from the views of both the majority and minority language. The importance of language, consent, and listening. The need for threat modeling.

I’ve got more thinking and writing to do, and appreciate the jolt of inspiration and perhaps course correction. People with surprising answers make asking questions exciting.

Back To Top