Syrian migrants get help from a smartphone app to cross Europe
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Projects that meet pressing social needs are among the challengers for inclusion in this year’s New Europe 100, a ranking that promotes innovators and digital thinkers from across central and eastern Europe.
One social programme that caught the attention of judges from the Warsaw-based journal Res Publica, Google, the Visegrad Fund and the Financial Times, was a mobile phone application to help refugees struggling to cross Europe after arriving on the continent.
The app has its roots in the first week of September when the eyes of the world were on Budapest. Thousands of refugees, many fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, made rough camps in the city’s railway stations, hoping to board trains to Austria and Germany. Tensions were high as scores of frustrated migrants — many holding worthless train tickets to Munich — protested in the heat.
The Hungarian government had chopped and changed its policies, trains that had been scheduled to run were cancelled without explanation and hundreds of riot police were deployed to maintain order.
Yet, in the middle of these scenes of anguish and misery, scores of volunteers could be found mingling with the crowds and handing out food, clothing and solace.
One of these was Nina Kov, a French-Hungarian choreographer who was with her husband on a family visit to Hungary. Ms Kov, whose own parents had fled communist Hungary for the west, was appalled, not only by the crowds and squalor, but by the chronic lack of communication between the authorities and the migrants in their charge.
“At one station, what we saw was just incredible,” she says. “The police did not know what they were supposed to do. The refugees had no idea what they were supposed to do. It was like a Mexican stand-off for the whole day.”
Desperate for a means to ease the situation, Ms Kov and her husband racked their brains for a solution.
“We went for a drink,” she told the Financial Times. “We said ‘if you have people who have not been informed about what’s happening, yes, they are going to be tense and nervous’. Then we said, more or less together, ‘Oh, my God, we need an app’.”
The idea to create a mobile phone app that allowed accurate information to be posted to refugees was quickly fleshed out.
Tamas Nepusz, a friend of the couple and a freelance software developer based in Budapest, was on holiday in Austria when he received the call asking for his help. Mr Nepusz created the “back end” — the web page that allows volunteers to have access to the system.
Meanwhile, in Denmark, a friend of his, Enys Mones, a physicist with “some basic knowledge”, started coding the app so it would run on the Android operating system.
By September 4, the crisis had reached new heights. A train was diverted and stopped well before the Austrian border. It contained some very angry refugees and by midday thousands of them began to walk from Budapest to Vienna. By mid-afternoon, Hungary’s principal motorway to the west was choked with migrants.
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the north-west, Mr Mones was on a steep learning curve. “I had only developed some offline Android apps, as a hobby.
“The basic interface was not difficult, but handling push messages [simple alerts sent to users who choose to receive them] and communicating with the back end was something I had to learn quickly,” he says.
Working with little sleep, Mr Mones had the InfoAid app ready to launch within two days.
“It was pretty stressful. I learnt a lot about very quick testing and writing code that is robust from the beginning, so I didn’t need to debug much,” he says.
The app had one function, to receive push messages, but it worked, and in Hungary while volunteers spread news of the free download, Ms Kov began organising a network of correspondents. “This was the hardest part, to find people who had time to give us the information. Volunteers, charities, they were all doing 18 hours a day,” she says.
One of the pressing concerns — in view of the news that 71 refugees had suffocated in a lorry — was to warn of unscrupulous people smugglers. But almost as important was that the accuracy of phoned in information had to be checked.
“We had to stop rumours creating panic and tension,” Ms Kov says.
There were also language barriers, but within days, more than 200 people from around the world were translating information into English, German, Arabic, Farsi, Greek and Pashtun for free.
As the migration route changed, first to Croatia, then Slovenia, the IT team developed the application to include various national “channels”, giving country-specific updates for refugees as they made their way across the region.
Two months after its launch, InfoAid had reached 4,000 downloads with some 2,000 active users, with between 10 and 50 downloads a day.
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