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January 25, 2016

German Map Apps Help Refugees

German Map Apps Help Refugees

By Marc Lange

As people seeking refuge in Europe arrive in German towns and especially cities, online mapping tools have emerged as a favoured tool for the release and distribution of essential information. This helps not only refugees but also the vast numbers of people offering help and voluntary work. Online maps can link a Farsi-speaking doctor with Farsi-speaking patients, for example, or a local refugee relief organisation with new arrivals in the same city. This article looks at examples of such maps and highlights a Berlin initiative to create “interconnected information spaces” both online and offline.

Mapping information for refugees
Modern information technology plays an important role for refugees. As opposed to those who fled the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, today’s refugees from Africa and the Middle East rely heavily on their smartphones. Those arriving in large, diverse cities need to quickly “use” and “navigate” available services and basic information, including the locations of government authorities, counselling services, lawyers, doctors and language classes. Online maps have been set up to aggregate such information and make it easily accessible and — most importantly — they are translated into the languages of the new arrivals.

One example, Arriving in Berlin, was developed by residents of a refugee accommodation centre in the German capital. They created a map that provides the information that they themselves needed, and the resulting platform generated remarkable media attention even before its official release. An early version was publicly accessible from the outset and differed from similar approaches because it was created by refugees themselves. The development team gathers data through direct research, personal experience and crowdsourcing, while data provided by third parties is reviewed. Information, translation and time were all the developers needed to build the app. Professional cartographic or programming skills weren’t required as the developers used the web-based open source mapping tool uMap, which makes use of map data from OpenStreetMap.

Numerous other mapping projects have emerged in various cities; Berlin alone has produced several. While redundancies and decentrality are often an advantage with IT infrastructure, there’s also an argument for creating a unified, single data source for all of Germany — or for Europe, or even the world, for that matter. Wouldn’t it be great to have? Not least because it would save hours of development work that is now being done over and over again.

Mapping information for volunteers
Meanwhile, an extraordinary number of people want to help and become engaged for this cause. A similar issue emerges here: Many people don’t know where, or exactly how, they can help. Maps detailing locations of refugee relief organisations and other refugee aid projects fulfil this need. (Such maps, however, raise a sensitive issue. The public mapping of the specific locations of refugee shelters is often avoided, and is not encouraged by relief organisations or public administrations due to the danger of anti-refugee violence. In Germany, there were 924 such attacks in 2015, an increase of over 400 percent compared to 2014.)

The immigration advocacy organisation Pro Asyl has created one of the most comprehensive maps of refugee aid projects and lists other maps with regional and local data as well. The German television news service Tagesschau features a map that collects refugee aid projects on which they have reported or that they have learned about from viewers and readers. Many other online maps exist, often at regional or local level, as well.

But again, to collect (or merely display) all the available data on one map would seem more useful and time-saving. Why not combine maps for refugees with maps for volunteers? Such a multi-purpose map could be enriched with data for and from other groups, including responsible authorities. An initiative in Berlin attempts just that.

Online and offline intertwined
The project InfoCompass by place/making, a Berlin-based design studio with a focus on information design in urban contexts, was launched in August 2015 in cooperation with a local integration commissioner, a refugee home operator and a social business company. The resulting system is, roughly speaking, an information and communication platform that aims to provide essential information for refugees and volunteers online and offline.

It also includes institutions and organisations (city administration and authorities, refugee aid organisations and refugee shelter operators) as well as  support professionals (such as consultants, social workers and language trainers). This comprehensive approach helps orient newcomers and provides key information and support to help integrate people into society.

A core element of the project is the web platform. Like other examples given above, a central feature is a map displaying most of the information, be it locations of important places, projects and services, or events. The platform is accessible in nine languages and every single piece of information is available in all these languages, making the platform truly multilingual.

The project features another important element that “takes things offline”. The organisation creates “Compass InfoPoints” in which selected information from the platform is printed out and displayed in refugee shelters (depicted in the image above). Any of the information from the online platform can be easily printed in a predefined format and in any of the nine languages. The integration of QR codes for linking back from offline to online information is planned for the next iteration. What might sound peculiar at first makes sense when you realise that many refugee shelters rely on printed signs, guides and notes for providing refugees with information. InfoCompass’s approach intertwines offline and online, establishes a consistent appearance and makes it easy to have a highly usable design for printed information (for which most refugee shelter operators have no resources).

After a pilot phase, three refugee shelters in Berlin have already implemented InfoCompass’s system on site. These three sites serve as showcases to advertise the website. The city is now actively supporting efforts to fund editors in order to improve the process of inputting and reviewing new information for the platform. The citywide committee of integration commissioners has expressed support for the project. The implementation of a scaled-up Compass InfoPoint in the former Tempelhof airport building, a refugee shelter with a capacity of 6,000 people, is currently being prepared.

To communicate with new arrivals, whether or not they are refugees, the information needs to be easy to use and find. Ideally, there shouldn’t be hundreds of single-purpose information platforms, but a few elaborate ones with an integrated approach. For example, German government authorities and other institutions recently released an app to help refugees integrate, which is good news. However, the app basically serves one purpose and could have comprised more features and data. Not to criticise such projects, I believe InfoCompass is heading in the right direction with not just a good technical idea, but also keeping in mind changes needed in the systems and social processes behind the implementation of such projects. Until now, InfoCompass has focused on Berlin only. Other information-mapping projects in Germany (that I know of) have a wider geographic scope, but are lacking in other respects.

Projects should target collaborations (or mergers) and linkages with different databases. And although some projects already offer ways to send in new data, crowdsourcing might also be a great option to extend and improve data. These two aspects illustrate that there is still potential for improvement. If developments continue at the current pace, it may not be long before such improvements are realised.

Marc Lange is a team member of SEiSMiC Germany. If you know of similar interesting projects elsewhere, please contact him.