Helping refugees gain more independence through tech

  • Barnardo's NI recently collaborated with David Shawe (or as his trading name goes, Invisible Building) on a project for Techies in Residence that can enable refugee families in Northern Ireland to report housing issues independently.

    Sync NI spoke with David Shawe, and with Geoff Phillips from Barnardo's about this commendable tech platform, and how technology is transforming the charity landscape here in NI. 

    Since 2015, Barnardo’s Refugee Support Service has supported Syrian refugee families arriving to the UK through a government resettlement scheme, and has helped them set up access to healthcare and schooling, local orientation and integration opportunities while they are living in the UK.

    “People think of refugees as completely different to us, but this isn’t the case at all," said Geoff.

    "Underneath the rich cultural diversity, they are families just like us, they go to the cinema, they go to work, they lived a normal life before the war.” 

    He came across the Community Foundation's Techies in Residence programme by chance and explained, “I was checking my emails one day and glanced at one from Community Foundation NI that was sent to ‘all contacts’ and didn’t think much of it.

    “Once opened, it detailed matching a charity group with a digital tech expert, which made me think of an issue that families we work with experience regularly. It had a potential digital solution.” 


    The proposal was an app established with Invisible Building that promotes self-advocacy for refugees. 

    It allows the user to address direct housing issues between the property owner and the tenant. The app, later named “FixIT” encourages refugees to build their independence in the country and think beyond language barriers and cultural differences. It is rooted in an enabling and ‘strengths-based approach’.

    David Shawe usually focuses on start-ups and service designs, but professed that he loves working on tech-for-good initiatives.

    "I was initially attracted to the project because my mother and sister have worked in social care for all their lives," said David.

    RELATED: NI tech-for-good projects receive £67k boost from virtual pitch

    He and Geoff arranged weekly Zoom calls as part of their mission to create a digital solution to help a significant number of those in need, and together made ‘FixIT” become a reality. 

    David also stated that "programmes like these are essential for engaging the Northern Irish tech scene and audience in order to partner with charities, social enterprises and tech-for-good projects."

    Geoff stressed the importance of combining the help of technology with a "human connection" in treating refugees with respect, empathy and humanity. 

    "They just want to escape a war and be safe somewhere else. It’s a privilege for the team to be able to help them," he continued.

    Barnardo’s hopes to further develop 'FixIT' - which is currently in the prototype stage - with some additional ‘seed fund money’ they have secured through Techies in Residence.

    "The plan is to share the benefits of 'FixIT' with other families in similar circumstances, including other refugee families and asylum seekers," added Geoff.

    Nearly £70,000 has helped tech-for-good projects this year

    The Techies in Residence programme has supported over 25 groups since it began and is primarily focused on creating a powerful change within communities through digital technologies.

    In 2021, seven tech-for-good projects competed for a share of £67,000, to allow them to take their work forward to the next stage. Barnardo's received £12,000 from this funding, which will help it upgrade 'FixIT' with ‘Premium' features including allowing video evidence to be submitted when reporting an issue.

    RELATED: Refugees can help NI's tech sector - and the tech sector can help them

    The money will also enable 'FixIT' to be improved through research and development, with a focus on the reporting feature and landlord/tenant communication, and more automation can be built into the app, allowing issues to be solved via 'How to Guides', giving the families the opportunity to exercise greater autonomy.

    Barnardo's will now push for the platform's growth and expansion across the UK and Ireland, and next steps include translating 'Terms & Conditions', 'GDPR' and 'Data Processing' information.

    Other Techies in Residence 2021 projects to receive a share of the prize fund included:

    • NICHS

    Northern Ireland Chest, Heart & Stroke (NICHS) aims to reduce disconnection and isolation between community health champions. NICHS and techie Johan Gant have developed a communication and information sharing platform for volunteer health champions active in workplaces.

    • Mid and E Antrim Agewell Partnership

    MEAAP aims to reduce digital barriers isolated Older People face connecting to online community groups and support. MEAAP and Damgeo have developed a remote access app that will reduce digital barriers of navigation and literacy for Older People to easily access their vital community online services.

    • Young Enterprise Northern Ireland (YENI)

    Young Enterprise Northern Ireland (YENI) aims to address low education and employability skills with young people. YENI and Zoo Creative have developed a Virtual Reality (VR) problem solving game that develops enterprise and employability skills.

    • Linking Generations NI (LGNI)

    Linking Generations NI (LGNI) aims to reduce social isolation, poor mental health and a societal disconnection between older and younger people. LGNI and Metadeck have developed a bespoke platform that can be used to deliver intergenerational activities online, engaging and connecting generations together digitally and safely.

    • Aurora Counselling

    Aurora aims to equip parents with knowledge and tools to support their child's emotional health and wellbeing at home while awaiting counselling. Aurora Counselling and Kippie have developed the Kidz Xpress App with two main sections: Parentland - a library of useful content for parents and Kidz Xpress - an interactive therapeutic storytelling section for parent and child together.

    • St. Columb's Reconciliation Trust (SCRT)

    St. Columb's Park House (SCPH) aims to address social, emotional and mental health related to the societal disconnect from nature, for all ages. St. Columb's Park House and Access Heritage have developed a virtual reality nature tour of the grounds at St. Columb's Park House

    Find out more about Techies in Residence here

    About the author

    Rosa is a Sync NI writer who is currently studying journalism at Ulster University. She has an interest in technological advancements and Women in Tech. To connect with Rosa, feel free to send her an email or connect with her on Twitter.

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