Re:Source Hackathon brings refugees, tech community together in Bay Area to hack down barriers

Berkeley, CA – For 12 hours, refugees, designers, developers, and engineers sat in a conference room at University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. There was no grading, no instructor, and no payment. Instead, these volunteers were motivated by the knowledge that technology can change and improve the lives of refugees in the U.S.

The Re:Source Hackathon was organized by The Refugee Center Online, a national resource-filled website and a member of Welcoming America. From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in late September, over 70 volunteers worked in teams to design and create prototypes for increasing community support and overcoming common barriers to integration.

This Hackathon was unique in that it gave refugees, asylees, immigrants, and second-generation immigrants a voice at the design table.

Maryam, a refugee from Afghanistan, was one of the participants contributing her personal experience. She registered because she wanted to help other refugees integrate. “I have gone through the process and I know how hard it is to be in that situation and how important it is to get and give the support through the integration process.”

In Berkeley, the room was filled with animated participants sharing their experiences. In one group, a participant FaceTimed a friend who was also a refugee for additional input. In another, a recent asylee from Colombia shared his learning experience around looking for jobs. In still another, a woman who flew in from Barcelona, Spain, shared her experience as an immigrant to a different country. The unique perspectives and input shaped and molded the products that arose.

“One of our main goals was to lower the barrier of access for refugees,” winning team member Michelle Peretz said.

Peretz’s team produced a messaging platform in which users send a message via voice record or text. The message would be delivered to a team of trained receiving community members who can converse in the message’s language. As a conversation unfolds, phone numbers and identities are never revealed, and users receive support in their native language.

“We felt very strongly about making this product as easy-to-use as possible. There is no need for refugees to download another app since they can text directly from WhatsApp or SMS and, if they have difficulty reading and writing, they can leave a voice recording as well.”

The need for support in one’s native language is well-documented. Many refugees are resettled with limited English skills and feel isolated in their communities.

Because of the technology and its proposed link to the existing Refugee Center Online website, this platform is easily actionable throughout the United States. Relying on volunteers of many languages, it would be scaleable to a national level.

Teams presented products that used technology to improve access to areas in driving, job skills training, community support, and financial literacy. With needs and barriers laid out for them, participants were steered toward useful and relevant products.

Bo Ghirardelli, a founder of a tech startup, participated because he wanted to explore innovative solutions to empowering refugees through entrepreneurship.

“I would like to explore how to make self-employment and business ownership more viable for refugees,” Ghirardelli said.

Teams proposed career tracks through large organizations that would work on future employees’ English language skills as well as skills-based training for high demand positions. Leaders in the tech field acted as mentors to the teams, provided guiding questions to help hone and refine their vision and product.

Jessica Marks, Refugee Center Online founder and President, said, “It was incredibly powerful to see refugees and engineers working side-by-side to build tech-based solutions together.”  She added, “Tech can really make an impact by helping support the longer-term integration of refugees into our communities.”

The eight proposals connecting refugees to support systems and resources proved just that: technology can connect and help integrate refugees, regardless of the services available in a particular city.

Rolando, a recent migrant to the U.S. and computer science engineer, said, “This is a great opportunity to share and to contribute to other people that could be in the same position, that have not been as lucky as I am.”

Best Practices: Hosting a Hackathon

Hackathons, day-long coding events, have become popular events around the globe. The Refugee Center Online offers a few tips to other organizations interested in hosting events to help create tech-solutions for refugees:

  • Clearly define the goal/outcome you hope to get out of the Hackathon, and communicate the goal with participants before the event.
  • Partner with tech organizations (and/or Computer Science or Engineering graduate schools) in your community to ensure volunteer developers, engineers and coders attend the event. Many cities around the U.S. have become tech hubs. You may have more in your area than you realize.
  • Assign teams of five. Five is enough people to have needed and varying assets (newcomer voice, engineer, designer, etc.) and also allows everyone to participate.
  • Ensure refugees and immigrants attend and lead the event. Have newcomers both participate in teams and, if possible, be available for testing prototypes.
  • Include one or two keynote speakers throughout the day but try not to interrupt working time too much. Speakers should re-energize the crowd and provide necessary information, such as how to give a strong pitch, or how to design for specific populations.
  • Invite tech leaders to serve as mentors to help facilitate teams and provide expertise.
  • Have plenty of food that allows for religious and cultural preferences. Offer vegetarian and non-beef options. Be cognizant of religious holidays that may be happening that affects mealtimes or meal options. While you cannot serve everyone’s needs, you can share the food details prior so that participants know what to expect.
  • Make it fun! When you focus on the many ways newcomers make our country better, it brings people together even if the work and challenges are hard.
  • Provide clear judging criteria and clear instructions on who will be voting and how voting will take place.
  • Finally, the biggest critique of Hackathons is that the ideas don’t always get implemented. Have one leading partner organization that can commit to implementing the winning solutions. Need help? We might be able to work with your organization to implement solutions on our website!

If you are interested in planning or hosting a Hackathon, contact [email protected]. We are happy to share our experience to help you plan a successful event.

About the Refugee Center Online

The Refugee Center Online (RCO) is a website built specifically for refugees and immigrants living in the United States. The RCO is a 501(c)3 organization that uses the power of mobile technology and the internet to help refugees and other immigrants successfully build new lives in the United States.

Many refugees and immigrants use technology daily, using mobile phones and computers.  This makes technology an easy avenue for accessing resources and assistance, even when in-person services might be hard to attend or receive. The Refugee Center Online website alone receives thousands of visitors per month who access free resources, including GED and Citizenship classes.