My graduate school team placed second among 70 entrants for the 2015 CHI Student Design Challenge at the international Computer-Human Interaction Conference in Seoul, South Korea. You can find our paper published in the ACM Digital Library here. Shout-outs to my teammates and fellow collaborators: Jimin Zheng, Jay Liu, Israel Gonzales, and Heidi Yang.
When refugees enter their new host countries, they are faced with a variety of challenges. They often find themselves relying on others for help. Equipped with only basic technologies, refugees must utilize the little they have to understand their new environments. Currently, there are no digital systems in place that ease the transition for newly arriving refugees into the United States. In response to this, we have developed Lantern, a cost-efficient feature phone-based service that combines previous generation technology with modern, near-field communication capabilities, enabling refugees to learn and navigate their new surroundings.
"While new groups of users are constantly emerging, quite a few people still stay away from the benefits of technology. Design a product, application, technology, or service that enables people who are a new and completely unexplored user group in any country to appropriate things and technologies around them. This user group may be a minority, an extreme case, or somehow disconnected from the mainstream. Showcase the best abilities of "maker cultures" to build new connections and to make less-voiced cultures better heard. Use technology as a material for crafting and tinkering and make sure that you solve real problems, empower people in a unique way, and let them express their colors and needs."
Choosing a user group was by and far the most challenging aspect of this project. So many groups qualify--those who are disconnected from the mainstream--and we explored many of them. However, our selection was ultimately constrained by our access to users (local and remote) and prior knowledge. Having spent a semester in undergrad volunteering at a refugee clinic, I had an idea of where we could start and I had a few people we could speak with in mind. Additionally, the city of Pittsburgh has a large number of refugees from Bhutan, Iraq, and Ethiopia, along with a number of public, religious, and civic resettlement services.
Ultimately, we spoke with nine refugees who had been in the US from a few hours to over five years (hailing from Iran, Iraq, Bhutan, Venezuela, Nepal, Democratic Republic of the Congo) through interviews, field visits, and ride-alongs. We also spoke with six experts (including caseworkers, lawyers, agency managers, and charity founders). Between primary and secondary research, we sought to understand the issues these refugees encountered in order to define a specific problem space. Unsurprisingly, there were many:
Furthermore, refugees rely heavily on others for help in everyday life, such as grocery shopping and car rides to stores. However, the resources refugees rely on are either limited or over-extended:
Refugees are provided low-feature phones, but those seldom have data plans
These factors were among our many design considerations as we moved into ideation mode. We returned to them as we brainstormed design ideas that would touch multiple opportunity areas, as identified through our research synthesis and affinity diagramming process.
After scoring 40 design ideas in terms of impact and feasibility, we storyboarded the most robust ones and used "speed-dating," a user testing technique where various scenarios are presented to users to elicit initial feedback and gut reactions. We found that refugees consistently sought out other refugees similar to them promptly after arriving, and that they favored solutions that incorporated older technologies (e.g. feature phones instead of smartphones). Refugees would be more likely to be familiar with these. We continued to iterate on two final directions and run them through use cases, until we settled on a final direction.
Lantern provides guidance to refugee communities through wayfinding technology, using near-field communication (NFC) stickers as digital footprints to help refugees navigate unknown landscapes.
Caseworkers already provide newly-arrived refugees with standard low-feature phones to be used as their key communication tools. These phones cost about $10 each and have basic talk and text functionality, but no data plans. GSMA announced in 2011 that NFC functionality would be integrated into SIM cards, creating a global standard.
Caseworkers can work with established refugees to embed directions, information, and commands onto NFC stickers in the refugees' native languages, with each sticker each costing less than $1. These tags would be placed by caseworkers and established refugees in strategic locations to leave context-based assistance for refugees needing guidance. Depending on the context, this help could come in the form of a pre-recorded message in the refugee’s native language. Or it could trigger an automated phone call or text message to a service that would provide relevant information. The refugee only needs to look out for these colored tags at pre-established locations and to tap their phone to them to receive any necessary information. Designed for users with low tech experience, the system relies on simple, intuitive interactions with clearly-defined markers and automated processes.
Lantern uses mobile technology that refugees already have access to, eliminating their need to acquire additional hardware. Additionally, by drawing upon the refugee community to act as an ad-hoc, in-situ guide, Lantern takes a significant burden off of caseworkers. Refugees can obtain context-specific help in a self-service manner, building confidence in their ability to navigate their surroundings and achieving faster independence. By having the ability to contribute to Lantern, as they become more seasoned, a stronger sense of community can form among the individuals using the system. Finally, the flexibility of the system empowers refugees to modify or continue to develop the system to suit their needs.
Two envisioned use cases are:
A newly arrived refugee wants to visit a local ethnic market but doesn’t know the bus he needs to get there. He sees an NFC sticker placed on the stop and scans it with his phone. His phone then calls a number, where he is guided through an automated system in his native language that provides him options of where to go. He then receives a text to his phone containing the correct bus number, photograph of the stop, and ETA.
Resettlement agencies provide local hospitals and doctors’ offices with NFC stickers, which refugees scan to get from the outside of the building to the correct floor, office, and front desk, where they automatically check themselves in for their appointment. At the end of the week, caseworkers receive a report of all the individuals who checked into their scheduled appointments, and those who didn't. This enables easy follow-up for caseworkers, who monitor this policy requirement.