Hacking a better world for refugees

Data scientist talk at hackathon

On Friday November 2, over eighty data scientists, students, engineers and people from across the globe filed into the “Human” room at Airbnb’s headquarters in San Francisco. They were all there for one reason: to #HackABetterWorld for refugees. They spent the evening listening as staff from USA for UNHCR, and Airbnb presented them with three major challenges:

  • Challenge One: Help identify communities in the United States that are likely to be open and welcoming to refugees.
  • Challenge Two: Build a tool to help improve refugee outcomes, either through better understanding media and social media sentiment surrounding refugees or identifying how we can improve water access for refugees in camps and settlements using satellite imagery and UNHCR WASH’s borehole open source data.
  • Challenge Three: Using data from, identify new ways to support educators who are serving refugee students.

Volunteers spent the rest of the evening in groups, brainstorming what approaches could be taken to address these challenges.

Rested and re-energized for a day of hacking, volunteers arrived on Saturday morning ready to begin scouring the data.

Throughout the day, breakout groups worked with each other, as well as USA for UNHCR, and Airbnb staff to sift through the data they were given and test mechanisms that could hopefully produce new solutions to the problems posed.

Hackers working in a dark room

Several volunteers shared why they decided to devote their weekend to the hackathon and one answer kept coming up: they wanted to use their skills to help people in need. Rob Schoenbeck, a data analytics manager at Kiva, worked until 1:40am Sunday morning, trying to find patterns in media sentiment surrounding refugee issues. Kiva is an organization that allows people to donate to refugees’ projects and businesses, helping support and empower refugees around the world. It is also a proud partner of USA for UNHCR. But Rob was not at the hackathon because of his role at Kiva.

“I think it is an important time to take a stand, personally,” he told me.

And he was not alone. Participants joined from Airbnb,, Autodesk, Pandora, Accenture, Oxford University’s Department of Statistics, Berkeley University, Stanford University Walmart, Watsi, Lime and numerous other organizations giving up their weekends to help refugees.

The weekend yielded some incredible new tools and ideas that will have a direct impact on the lives of refugees around the world. Stay tuned for the next blog post where we will share the #HackABetterWorld results!

If you would like to join The Hive at USA for UNHCR’s data for good community, please sign up here or contact Nicole Smith at

Nov 8 2018
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