From coordinating efforts and staff placed in different countries, timezones and areas that often lack internet connections and technological infrastructures, to managing chaotic databases and receiving confusing or delayed notifications on where actual aid is needed, NGO workers face various challenges during their day-to-day operations. How can technology and tech-tools actually help them be more effective and increase the positive impact of their organizations?
Looking further into the subject, on our second blog for the Tech For Good series, we had a brief discussion with Sophie Spencer. Sophie is a linguist who has worked extensively with humanitarian NGOs in the Middle East and Greece as an English instructor, interpreter and field coordinator. She is currently based in Athens where she manages and supports the logistical, technical and administrative casework operations of the Safe Passage program in Greece.
Give us some details about your NGO work, mission and current projects that you are managing in Greece, please.
Safe Passage is a British organization that helps unaccompanied child refugees and vulnerable adults in Europe find safe, legal routes to the UK. In addition to our program in the UK, the organization has field-teams placed in France, Italy and Greece. Safe Passage has also helped reunite children from Germany, Belgium, Bulgaria and Syria. When the children arrive in the UK, Safe Passage also supports their transition to a new life on a social and educational level. Our vision is a world in which every person fleeing persecution can access publicly-supported safe and legal routes to a place where they are can lead a full and dignified life.
Our mission is to open up safe and legal routes to protection through advocacy, community organizing and legal work. We then support people’s first steps to rebuilding their lives in the UK.
Around 20 people work for Safe Passage on a full-time basis and there are many more volunteers lending their time, mainly in the UK. My job in Greece is mainly focused on managing the case work, meaning I am responsible for communication between Greek and UK based lawyers on specific cases and managing our database of clients (i.e. the child refugees).
How do you think NGOs and humanitarian workers can benefit from technology and perhaps make their work easier and more effective on a day-to-day basis and also in long-term?
I think that technology is a very useful tool for information sharing. What I see happening a lot right now in Greece is a duplication of efforts. We need better information on who is currently doing what in Greece, so we can co-ordinate our efforts better.
One of the first things that come to mind, is that we are really in need of an aggregator of data, that offers in real time all the information on which NGO works where and on what project, and also information and instant notifications on where help is needed and in what kind of things etc. It is impressive how well connected volunteers in Greece, for instance, are. There is a website called http://www.greecevol.info/ which tells you where volunteers are needed and also what skills are in demand. But even before the website, there was a very active Facebook group for volunteers –which is actually where I was informed about a position here in Greece last year.
Are there some specific technological tools or applications, that you use to manage and coordinate your ongoing projects operations?
Personally, my job would be extremely difficult without smartphones. Most of my communication with our clients is via messaging apps, like WhatsApp. A smartphone is a necessity, especially for our clients who have family around the world.
In our office we work mostly with desktop applications like Outlook, and project management tools like Dapulse and of course different Office 365’s applications like SharePoint, Excel online, Calendar and Skype for team calls with our partners who work in different areas. We also use Better Impact for managing our volunteers -mostly interpreters based in the UK.
Which are the greatest challenges NGOs that work especially with refugees face today, in terms of technology?
The lack of WiFi connections at the camps is usually the greatest challenge. There have been some volunteer initiatives that have helped with the installment of wireless community networks and other infrastructures in different camps. We make sure that all of our clients have a smartphone so we can stay in touch with them. Our organization has purchased a certain number of smartphones through donation, for that purpose.
What needs -in terms of technology and tech support- does your NGO have at the moment?
We need an easier way to input information into our database and for that information to be shared with those involved with our organization and each case. It would be very effective and helpful for NGO workers if for instance, all those involved could be notified about new information so we wouldn’t be relying so much on email.
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