Volunteer Hackathon Yields Results for Refugees

Photo of two data scientists at the hackathon

During the first weekend in November, over 80 data scientists, data engineers and tech aficionados came together to change the world for refugees. USA for UNHCR partnered with and Airbnb’s Human Team to host #HackABetterWorld in San Francisco.

In November, we reported on the experience and reasons why individuals gave up their weekend to help. Now we can share preliminary results on what they achieved in 48 hours and, more importantly, express our gratitude for the incredible work that has been accomplished over such a short time for refugees!

Challenge One: Tools for Improving Refugee Outcomes

We challenged participants to use publicly available data to improve the lives of refugees in two ways: (1) by better understanding the conversation surrounding refugee issues in the United States by analyzing social and traditional media, and (2) by visualizing borehole (or water access) for refugees in camps and settlements, as well as potential improvements to access, by combining satellite imagery and UNHCR’s borehole data.

Participants working on social and traditional media refugee conversations identified trends in sentiment and topics among the 5 million tweets and 30,000 articles. Additionally, volunteers used Twitter data to calculate influencer scores, identifying which people are leading discussions about refugees on Twitter and creating a visualization that groups refugee-related news from popular news sources to better understand how refugees are covered in media.

Participants working on water access provided visuals of camps in Africa by distinguishing the proximity of each tent to the nearest borehole as well as an estimate for the number of refugees using each borehole. Additionally, this group tested how water access would be impacted if a borehole was out of service.

Borehold mapping from hackathonA snapshot of the visuals developed for the water access challenge. The diamonds mark locations of boreholes, where the colored dots represent tents in a refugee camp, changing from green to red as tents are farther from water.

Challenge Two: Welcoming Communities for Refugees

Using government and nonprofit statistics, we asked participants to identify welcoming communities for refugees at the city level. Although we do not have a formal definition of “welcoming,” we used creative proxies to identify whether a community was inclusive and empathetic. Additionally, we wanted to explore what local initiatives we could support.

Participants explored what is currently going on in major U.S. cities. One participant was eager to find volunteer opportunities to serve resettled refugees in her community. Upon discovering that there was not a place for her to find available opportunities in San Francisco, she partnered with hackathon participants to create a website that provides education about refugees in specific cities as well as potential volunteer opportunities.

Challenge Three: Supporting Refugees through Education

Drawing upon a unique survey of public school teachers, refugee statistics and project descriptions, participants were challenged to explore the existing landscape of support for refugees as well as how to support educators with refugee students.

Participants identified what support already exists for refugee students through funding opportunities by using natural language processing to determine the main projects and items requested by teachers with refugee students. Additionally, one participant created a system that learns what supplies teachers request and recommends these supplies to other teachers.  

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 highlights of #HackABetterWorld projects as they progress in the coming months.

If you are interested in volunteering with the data for good community as a Data Science Volunteer at USA for UNHCR, please complete this survey or contact Nicole Smith,

Dec 12 2018
TOPICS News Technology
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