How technology is helping cities cope with mass migration

An unidentified refugee uses a smartphone in Belgrade, Serbia, in February. Several companies — from multinational corporations to start-ups — are developing innovations that can be adopted for urban environments and the refugee camps that can serve as gateways to cities. (Edward Crawford/Shutterstock)

Cities overwhelmed by refugees or migrants don’t have to search for solutions alone. They have an increasingly robust ally to help them through a humanitarian crisis: technology.

Across the globe, municipalities are harnessing the power of data analytics, smartphone apps and other innovations to track sudden population shifts or connect directly with immigrants to provide essential services.

A report from the Rockefeller Foundation spotlights the variety of advanced tools now available, from financial services for the “unbanked” to easy-to-access Internet-based business-license applications.

Global Migration: Resilient Cities at the Forefront, was published by 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative launched in 2013 by the foundation that aims to help cities strengthen their resilience to physical, social and economic challenges.

[See: These preparations can help cities ease the impacts of migration]

Some major U. S. cities, for instance, are early adopters of technologies designed to aid immigrants:

  • Bank on San Francisco: To improve access to financial services, poor and undocumented individuals can open no-fee or low-fee accounts with no minimum balance. First-time overdraft charges are waived as participants learn how to use checking accounts.
  • Chicago’s New Americans Plan: The city’s Office of New Americans plans to launch information centres for immigrants that would feature a range of online tools, such as streamlined business-license applications.
  • Los Angeles Geohub Open Data Portal: Launched in 2016, this online portal features granular information from more than 20 municipal agencies and partners. The data is freely accessible and can be downloaded. Categories include health, schools, transportation and safety.

Several companies — from multinational corporations to start-ups — are developing innovations that can be adopted for urban environments and the refugee camps that can serve as gateways to cities.

Data-collection tools such as Survey123, developed by 100 Resilient Cities partner Esri, can be tailored to fit a variety of purposes, the report says. The authors note that Paris, Thessaloniki (Greece) and other cities that have opened reception centres for refugees and migrants could use the technology to better understand the needs of at-risk populations.

[See: What Athens, Amman learned about helping refugees amid tight budgets]

Working with Google and Mercy Corps, the International Rescue Committee created, a site that new arrivals to Europe can access for critical information on everything from medical services to housing and transportation.

Cisco has outfitted refugee camps in Greece, Slovenia and Serbia with Wi-Fi hotspots to provide Internet connectivity, a lifeline to the outside world. MasterCard’s cashless assistance programme, in partnership with Mercy Corps, distributes prepaid debit cards to eligible refugees so they can make purchases more safely than with cash.

The Fiscal Policy Institute and the Welcoming Economies Global Network developed an interactive, online tool that enables city leaders to determine how many immigrants might qualify for ownership of “distressed housing”, such as abandoned properties, the report says. The housing database they created, the Landbank Interactive Tool, indicates that there are nearly two dozen U. S. cities where ample housing already is available that could be refurbished for the poor, the authors note.

This article is the final installment in a three-part series. The other stories highlighted preparatory steps that cities can take to ease migration crises and lessons learned from Athens and other municipalities that have been inundated with war-zone refugees. 

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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