Digital technologies have, over the decades, taken an influential place in the daily lives of individuals around the world. This evolution includes the Syrian migrants and other displaced communities, which they use to stay in contact with their families and to access vital information. One would not suspect, however, that the most widespread digital technology in Jordan, as well as the rest of the Middle East, are smartphones. These smartphones serve as tools of convenience and survival for the displaced. Indeed, even though there is a difficulty of access to information regarding migrant services in Jordan, smartphones and applications can be powerful solutions to providing and guiding the urban refugees to services in their host countries, where they at first feel alienated with the language barrier and their status as non-citizens. That is exactly the challenge my class has been solving during the past semester: building an app UrbanRefuge/Aman (“security” in Arabic) for the Jordanian market, focusing solely on the urban settings in Amman for the moment, by simply “putting aid on the map”. Our main goal is thus to connect the incoming refugees with existing community resources and non-governmental organizations, which are not readily accessible, on a single, versatile platform.
That was when I was faced with a conundrum at the very beginning of the class. The West [and I, at first] is highly misinformed about the refugee crisis, and, more generally, about the region. I would not instinctively think that Syrian refugees possess reliable, connected devices. A lot of people will also think that they are economic migrants, who live in poverty, when they are simply fleeing war zones. In fact, many of them are middle class or highly educated, wealthy families. In addition to representing the contrary of how they are perceived, a large majority of Syrian refugees owns a smartphone. And that is why it is important to efface this misconception from the common belief of the Western public. Instead, we should raise awareness for the high potential of using smartphones as platforms for change and support in the lives of urban refugees. And how can the Westerners help? Well, the most effective options include using apps designed for the public to be more informed on the situation of the refugees, as well as funding apps directly designed to ameliorate the lives of those refugees. We need to realize that, in reality, the urban refugees both fleeing to neighboring countries or Europe are as addicted to their phone as we are, as reports show; except for them, they have a vital role in helping them navigate safely and access essential services, yet also stay in contact with their relatives.
This realization that refugees are just as well-connected as we are in the West made me grasp the amplitude of the app market in front of us and the potential to help thousands of lives. The most important detail to consider, however, is that the smartphone penetration among the refugees, especially in Jordan and the rest of the Middle in East, is extensively through Android OS smartphones. Indeed, 78% of smartphones in Jordan – our area of interest – occupy the Android OS market shares, which offer more reach than all the other OS platforms combined. Smartphones have become an extremely powerful tool for refugees; in one year alone, smartphone penetration in Jordan grew by a rate of 107%, and the sale of smartphones has caught up with that of basic phones and feature phones, going up from 18.8% in December 2012 to 41.0% in December 2013, while feature phones’ usage spiraled down from 59.2% to 40.3% in the same time frame. In comparison, PC adoption rate has slowed down considerably, due to the convenient aspect of smartphones and their portability, which justifies our focus on building an app rather than a website-based migrant services database. Smartphones are also becoming the primary internet access-point in Jordan, with 80% of the smartphone population having 3G access. Building an app instead of a website to address the urgent needs of incoming refugees would be much more accessible solution as 71% of Jordanian smartphone users download apps, and smartphones are becoming more prevalent across all socio-economic segments. A successful app, called Gherbetna, has been growing increasingly more popular in Turkey, especially. It’s something of a crossover between a Lonely Planet guide of sorts and a Craigslist-style section for job ads and other services. Many Syrian refugees in Turkey have been more easily integrated Gherbetna job services, as jobs have become hard to come by. This is an even more significant impact as jobs are only accessible once refugees have cleared their way for employment by getting work permits through the information and location services offered by the app. Now the question is, why choose Android? Besides the very high penetration of Android smartphones in Jordan, building an app for the Google Play Store offers many other benefits. Indeed, Android-based devices’ strength is that they are available in all cost ranges (from low-end to high-end smartphones), unlike iOS based smartphones – a small luxury for the Jordanian masses – which is usually the preferred operating system for which innovators build apps. This increased accessibility for Android phones on the Jordanian market is coupled with an easy portability to other operating systems – such as Blackberry, Symbian or Ubuntu OS – as Android apps are developed using the Java programming language. The fact that Android apps are open-source empowers us, college students with no computer engineering background, to use pre-existing source code to help build our own app. Finally, the availability of Android apps on the Play Store is much quicker (only a few hours) compared to that of iOS apps (usually a few weeks); this also applies to updates and bug fixes, allowing us to constantly and almost instantly improve the experience of the refugees using our app, thus allowing them more quickly and efficiently to enjoy our app services to live a smooth transition coming in to Jordan.
The key takeaway from this academic app initiative and market research on smartphone penetration in Jordan is that digital solutions have the very strong potential to help Syrian refugees because of the fact that almost all of them are equipped with smartphones, contrarily to common belief. Having this information in hand, it is my duty to eliminate these Western misconceptions on the refugee crisis through awareness, and to promote the fact that smartphones – mostly Android OS based – are an extremely powerful tool in fighting poverty, gender-divide, and the lack of access to resources information among urban refugees. That is why anyone who has the knowledge of coding should build apps to help refugees, along so many existing app initiatives. It is important to perceive smartphones as truly empowering tools for the migrants’ integration, safe navigation and connection with family, and break the stigma that refugees do not have access to high-end technology, or that, as heard as an argument in Europe, that refugees with smartphones do not need help because “they must have money if they own a smartphone”. For these displaced communities, smartphones are not simply a gadget, they also are their survival kit.