Google is making a $5.3 million grant to help refugees in Germany.
The Californian tech giant, via its charitable arm Google.org, is donating 25,000 laptops to German charities and aid groups trying to tackle the ongoing refugee crisis, it announced on Monday.
The devices are ChromeBooks, a type of laptop that runs Google’s Chrome OS as its operating system. Organisations can apply for up to 5,000 of the laptops, with suggested uses including facilitating language courses, educational tools for children, and building internet cafés.
“Project Reconnect” is being run in conjunction with NetHope, an organisation that helps connect non-profit organisations to tech companies.
The current refugee crisis is considered the Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Over one million refugees have arrived on the continent, creating a logistical nightmare and a rapidly-escalating humanitarian crisis in parts of Europe. Angela Merkel’s Germany has been particularly proactive in taking in refugees.
The Crisis Info Hub
Back in October 2015, Google launched a “Crisis Info Hub.” It’s a smartphone web app that provides vital information in a “lightweight, battery-saving way.”
This includes information on ports, transport links, medical info, and places to sleep, and is available in English, Arabic, and other languages. It’s built in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps, two aid organisations, and is open source.
Twenty-first century refugees
The crisis currently facing Europe differs from previous major migration events in one key one area: Smartphones.
Huge numbers of migrants and refugees coming to the continent equipped with smartphones, and use them to find information, communicate, and navigate their way to their destination.
It has transformed relief efforts, with aid workers offered a new way to contact people who need their new help. It also presents new challenges — getting sufficient electricity to the refugees, as well as WiFi and stable internet connections.
Kate Coyer is the director of the Civil Society and Technology Project at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. She’s also become a volunteer relief worker since the crisis escalated, when she and a number of tech-activist friends got together to see what they could do to help. (She’s also spoken about her volunteer work with New Scientist.)
Their solution? Battery-powered WiFi hotspots that can be worn in a backpack, along with charging banks cobbled together out of parts bought from high-street stores to let users charge up their devices. (Alongside the volunteer efforts of Coyer and others, established charities like Greenpeace are also working on the ground with more professional, long-term solutions.)
Coyer told Business Insider that aid workers coordinate via Google Docs and Facebook groups to ensure that the outpouring of public support doesn’t leave them with an excess of certain items, and not enough of others. And it lets them quickly respond to changing needs — she cites an incident when people were walking down a highway at night towards the border. Aid workers quickly realised they weren’t particularly safe, so were able to put out a call and have someone drop off fluorescent jackets from a nearby IKEA.
Aid workers have built localised tools like Google’s Crisis Info Hub before to help refugees. Srba Jovanovic, a relief worker in Belgrade, told Business Insider there is a special web-based app for the Miksaliste aid station that provides refugees with accurate information about essential services. When they log on to the free WiFi networks provided by aid workers, they are initially redirected to the page, which lists the correct costs of taxis, toilet locations, places to buy food, and other useful information.