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11,000 Steps to Water: How data visualization can impact American perceptions of refugees

Students, designers, data scientists and hacking enthusiasts alike gathered at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York City on October 18th to participate in USA for UNHCR’s #HackABetterWorld data visualization hackathon. USA for UNHCR’s innovation lab, The Hive, hosted the event in partnership with the Parsons School of Design to highlight the challenges refugees face with respect to water accessibility. 

Last week, we shared some of the participant experiences and motivations for joining the event. Now, we’re excited to share the preliminary outcomes from the day!  

Challenge 1: Water Access for Refugees and Americans

The first challenge was to use publicly available data to help Americans better understand what refugees must do to collect water. The challenge was to develop a visual output that would clearly communicate what refugees experience in a way that would resonate with American audiences. 

The team working on this challenge developed several engaging projects that visualized the different realities of water access for Americans and refugees. From infographics to games, the team prototyped several interactive pieces that communicated the issue of water accessibility. 

One of the prototypes developed was an activity tracking app. This app helps Americans see how their daily activity compares to the daily activity of refugees. Many refugees travel long distances to collect the water they need for their daily use. If they have children or a large household, they often need to make multiple trips. 

The app asks for the user’s household size and tracks their steps through their phone or fitness tracker. It then alerts the user when they’ve reached the distance required to collect all the necessary water for their household based on the average distance refugees must travel to collect water. This prototype helps inspire empathy for what refugees must undergo to meet their basic needs. 

mock up of app that tracks steps

Daniel Sauter, an associate professor of data visualization at the Parsons School of Design and host of the event, noted the potential impact of this project. 

“It’s interesting to see how the daily chores that mostly [refugee] women do, including gathering water, could be a comparison for an American audience,” Daniel says. “Just to get an idea as we’re busy going about our own [lives] to see exactly what it takes just to have the basic need of water met.”  

Challenge 2: Boreholes and Climate Change

Using UNHCR data sets about boreholes in refugee camps, emergency water standards, average monthly temperatures and national climate data, participants were challenged to illustrate how climate change can affect boreholes in refugee camps. 

The composition of boreholes can change over time, including the depth, water quality and the local environment. Climate change compounds these variables as it impacts rainfall, temperature and the environment surrounding boreholes. These factors can reduce accessibility and their ability to produce water.

The participants taking on this challenge developed several graphics that illustrate the vulnerability and volatility of boreholes. They also developed an animation that depicts the drilling of boreholes over time and how many of those boreholes have become inactive due to changes in the environment.  

two maps visualizing boreholes in africa

Challenge 3: Borehole Placement in Refugee Camps

The third challenge asked hackers to investigate and understand the effect of borehole placement and quality in refugee camps. Borehole placement and quality have the power to affect the overall structure of a camp. For example, if borehole drilling cannot keep up with the growth of a camp, existing boreholes may become overused. 

The team’s primary concerns were about making the data more human-centric and relatable to an American audience. Although UNHCR data about boreholes is largely geographical, the team wanted to find a way to include the stories of refugees and portray how these boreholes affect their daily lives. 

The team developed several prototypes, including an interactive map that highlighted where single mothers lived in relation to boreholes and used photos of the camp to more clearly illustrate the distance. This helped clarify what many refugee women have to go through to acquire water for their families. 

various maps and pictures visualizing data about the accessibility of boreholes

Although the weekend yielded many incredible results, there’s still work to be done. The Hive will continue working with these projects and evolving them into solutions for refugees. Stay tuned to hear more about how the projects from #HackABetterWorld will impact the lives of refugees! 

Stay up to date on the latest activity from The Hive by subscribing here. For more information, contact Nicole Smith at nicole@unrefugees.org.

Nov 14 2019
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