Tech for refugees and immigrants


By Edward Kang

With 70.8 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, ensuring the safety of these populations is a critical issue. CITRIS and the Banatao Institute have launched technological and policy innovations to help protect refugees and immigrants. Projects range from mapping refugee services and transparency technologies to a digital propaganda study on immigration hate speech on Twitter in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

These projects have been supported by programs across CITRIS, including the CITRIS Policy Lab, the annual CITRIS Seed Funding Program, and the entrepreneurially focused CITRIS Tech for Social Good Program for students. The projects are highlighted below. 

Mapping Spatial Inequality: Immigrant Services in the Bay Area

Supported by a CITRIS Seed Fund Award in 2018, the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migrant Initiative (BIMI) developed an interactive map that visualizes the spatial mismatch between immigrants and essential services for the population. The map is the first of its kind in the Bay Area. Overall, BIMI hopes that this project will educate the public and policymakers on the effects of spatial inequality, facilitate health and legal services to immigrant populations, and support immigrants in building new civic organizations. 

Computational Propaganda Targeting Immigration 

Computational propaganda, or the use of AI and automation to influence public opinion on social media, is increasingly being deployed by nefarious actors to influence voters’ behavior before an election. The CITRIS Policy Lab is leading a study to investigate the role of Twitter bot accounts in spreading harassment, hate speech, and political divisiveness on immigration issues on Twitter in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. A summary of the study, to be released in November 2019, will share findings that explore the relationship between political polarization and hate speech online. 

Digital Refuge

UC Berkeley Professor Katerina Linos and former UC Davis Professor Anupam Chander, along with a team of graduate and undergraduate students, developed Digital Refuge with initial seed-funding from CITRIS, along with a Carnegie Fellowship. Digital Refuge allows people to compare refugees’ reactions and concerns to contemporary events that affect them in real time. For instance, readers on the Digital Refuge website can observe where migrant populations are centered in Greece, relate that info with regional income data, and learn about camp overcrowdedness. From there, they can track refugee sentiment over time by topic, location, and nationality. In 2018, the Washington Post used the Digital Refuge website to visualize how immigrants responded to the passing of an anti-immigrant policy in the European Union.


The MarHub team, a 2018 CITRIS Tech for Social Good funding recipient created by UC Berkeley MBA students, developed an app that connects refugees with services and NGOs through social media chatbots. Users receive aid and information in their native language. Mona, the team’s first chatbot, is currently active in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in coordination with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). Even with no marketing efforts, Mona has gone viral with over 3,000 refugee users and holds an 85 percent resettlement pathway completion rate. 

The team has also received great feedback: “ I feel my humanity and credibility,” said one user.

Future plans for MarHub focus on further improving ease of access and flexibility of use in avenues such as cash assistance and civil documentation. To learn more about Marhub — a 501(c)3 charitable organization — please visit their website and crowdfunding page. 

Photos courtesy of Marhub and BIMI

The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute drive interdisciplinary innovation for social good with faculty researchers and students from four University of California campuses – Berkeley, Davis, Merced, and Santa Cruz – along with public and private partners.

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