Integreat - Using technology to welcome refugees in Germany
In 2015, touched by the massive influx of refugees fleeing the situation in Syria, a group of students in Germany started the Integreat project, an app designed to help refugees navigate their way through their new host cities’ services. The students were volunteering with a refugee counseling association and noted that the printed information provided to refugees was easily lost or would quickly become outdated. They believed that digitalized information provided through a tailor-made app, available in different languages spoken by refugees, would help to address these challenges.
With support from the Chair of Information Systems at the Technical University of Munich, the group of students succeeded in obtaining the resources to develop this project, which went live in Augsburg in 2015.
"The role of science and academic research in the development of impactful projects and solutions for refugees should not be overlooked or underestimated, particularly in the field of social support and inclusion", said Professor Schreieck, who supported the project from the start.
Enabling refugees to become self-reliant in their host countries is one of the key objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and in 2019, the Technical University of Munich submitted a pledge at the first Global Refugee Forum (GRF) to strengthen and expand Integreat in keeping with this objective.
UNHCR interviewed Professor Maximilian Schreieck, Assistant Professor at the University Innsbruck, who was part of the group that conceptualized the app in his role as member of the Chair for Information Systems at the Technical University of Munich, and Ms. Clara Bracklo, Managing Director of Tür an Tür – Digitalfabrik, the social enterprise behind Integreat.
Both experts emphasized how the long-term success of the app is linked to the direct work with host municipalities, who are the best placed in Germany to provide up-to-date and timely information on services, rights, and resources available to refugees in each location. Measuring the impact of the app and adjusting it to ensure it stays relevant — including through regular translation of information into over 30 languages, as well as regular technical updates — also contributed to its unparalleled success. Today, Integreat brings together live content for refugees in 90 municipalities.
Note: as the interview was conducted simultaneously with Professor Schreieck and Ms. Bracklo, the responses provided in this article include both individually credited direct quotes (in italics) and paraphrases which reflect a synthesis of ideas presented by both interviewees.
How does the Integreat app work and what type of information can refugees find on it?
Integreat is designed to be simple and intuitive. Most of the information is local, classified by municipality, and translated into languages selected by the municipalities according to the local needs. The application also includes general information on federal-level processes, as well as interactive tools, educational resources, and other features tailored to user needs (e.g. a calendar of events hosted by NGOs and municipalities to foster social cohesion).
Although the COVID-19 pandemic strained resources of municipalities, it had a positive effect on the project. Indeed, during the pandemic, local governments understood that digitalization was not only practical and useful but also necessary to keep their populations informed of latest regulations, particularly as most counselling centers were closed, and language differences represented barriers for refugees to access information.
All tabs are customizable to municipalities according to their needs. The "First Steps" category in the app is, however, the most popular among users, as it tells refugees where to go and what steps to take upon arrival. Other categories frequently accessed by users include health, education, language learning, and job opportunities.
With time, the app also incorporated a "map view" option to show where to go to find a service or an event, and developed an improved algorithm to ensure that Integreat content is displayed among the top results of Google search on topics addressed by the app. Today, this is the main channel leading users to the app, which is a testament to how digital solutions must adapt if they are to remain relevant to their users.
Users can also report missing content. In response to the needs identified by refugees, the social enterprise implementing Integreat also created the Lunes app, which provides specific German vocabulary for over 50 professional categories.
How does the future look for Integreat?
Since its launch, Integreat has evolved from a student project to a social enterprise, as a result of the increasing demand from municipalities. However, the link with academia has been preserved, given that professors remain with the project as part of its Board, and students regularly contribute to the app through research and evaluations. As the app was born from a student-led project, its code is open-source – freely available and free to use by anyone – with the goal of making it a resource for others who are considering creating similar solutions in other countries.
"Integreat aims to ensure that information poverty is not a reason for people, and particularly refugees, to have fewer opportunities than others. As long as the barriers to accessing information are there, be it because of language or lack of accessibility, Integreat will continue to exist and adapt to the needs of its users (in Germany or elsewhere)" said Ms. Clara Bracklo.
"While the project was originally developed for Germany, we could see very quickly that challenges experienced by refugees here are probably the same or very similar to those faced by refugees arriving in other countries," said Professor Schreieck.
Actors in Australia and Greece have shown interest in the app, and conversations have started on how it can be adapted to the different needs in those countries. The main challenge, however, is to find the right counterparts to feed information into the app and ensure the same level of sustainability, quality, and reliability achieved by municipalities in Germany.
Were refugees involved in the project?
Refugees had a very important role in the development of the app. While it was designed by non-refugee students, it was fully based on the needs identified by refugees in counselling centres and their direct feedback through the platform. The next step is to do better in terms of hiring refugees to become part of the team. While around eight people in the team have a migrant background, no current employees have a refugee background.
"In the beginning of the project, we did not have an office and had to work from a café, which was right next to one of the main counseling centers for refugees in the city and often served as a ‘waiting area’ for the refugees. So, despite our limited resources, if we had any queries about the development of the app, all we had to do was go over to the next table and ask people what information would be most useful to them, and what they were most concerned about at the moment," said Professor Schreieck.
"This proximity to our end-users is not taken for granted. Once we were able to afford an office space, we made sure to keep it close to the counseling center, so as to maintain this very close link between the refugees and the development of Integreat," said Ms. Clara Bracklo.
What is your advice to those interested in investing in actionable research in support of forced displacement responses?
"The importance of considering the link between a research project on digital technologies and the practical needs of the real world cannot be overstated. This is particularly important in the field of humanitarian and development aid, where the results (both the good and the bad) brought about by digital solutions translate very quickly into tangible impact on the ground." Professor Schreieck.
"Our main challenge today is to find a way to move from grants towards more stable and sustainable funding structures to democratise Integreat in different countries. To achieve this, it is necessary to ensure that our counterparts in other countries using Integreat are genuinely committed to refugees and to conducting reliable needs assessments in societies that may be quite different from Germany," said Ms. Clara Bracklo, responsible for the impact measurement of Integreat.