How this Lebanese startup is innovating refugee humanitarian assistance

Startups are proving to be key innovators in various fields, and those in the humanitarian sector, are going one step further

Innovation in the humanitarian sector is a growing and important source of support for at-risk groups of people around the world. It served as one of the four main themes of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit.

With the multiplying crises in the MENA region, there is immense potential for technology to enhance emergency responses that provide immediate aid to internally displaced, refugee, and asylum-seeking populations.

Refugee challenges

As of 2016, some 14.2 million people had suffered displacement within Syria and Iraq, and an additional five million had sought refuge throughout the Middle East. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other international organizations operating in refugee camps across the region have been providing their inhabitants with shelter, food, and clothing for the harsh winter months. Last year, the UN earmarked $355 million to provide integrated assistance to 4.6 million vulnerable Syrian and Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) over the 2016-2017 winter. The budget included the provision of cash, relief items for winter, shelter insulation, and engineering work for camps, particularly that related to improvement of drainage systems.

Yet with political turbulence in Syria and Iraq showing no sign of abating, and donor fatigue on the rise, the UN may prove unable to support tens of thousands of refugees and IDPs over the fast approaching 2017-2018 winter. As a result, the UN and other organizations have been heavily investing in finding innovative solutions to scale and reach a wider net of refugees at a lower cost.

Hackathon success

Recently, Beirut’s UNHCR chapter co-sponsored a hackathon bringing together local tech enthusiasts and innovators (including college students) to design technology solutions to problems afflicting refugees, their host communities, and the international organizations trying to help them.

KwikSense is helping the UNHCR
(Logo via KwikSense Facebook page).

A team of four, going by the name of KwikSense, came up with a plug-and-play sensor platform of the same name that quickly and accurately measures the living conditions of any home around the world. KwikSense cofounders Georges Najjar, Hassan Salem, Marwan Ghamlouch, and Rayan Zaatari, along with hardware engineer Salwan Alwan, created a means of providing real-time temperature data for refugee enclosures, an innovation that looks destined to prove of great use to the UNHCR’s on-the-ground winterization strategy.

In the big picture, KwikSense is dedicated to enabling development and humanitarian agencies around the world to leverage the ever-growing capabilities of Internet of Things (IoT) technology to help better serve the most vulnerable communities.

“The Internet of Things is a rapidly growing field that gets more crowded each day with new solution providers,” Najjar said. “We still feel there is a big opportunity to break down the complexities of IoT in a way that makes it easy for non-tech oriented customers to understand and adopt IoT solutions. We like to call ourselves 'The Legos of IoT.’ ”

Commercializing the product

KwikSense’s device for measuring living conditions has been tested and evaluated by UNHCR to ensure accuracy, reliability, and security. For the initial run, UNHCR asked the team to deploy ten pilot devices, after signing a $50,000 contract with UNHCR. KwikSense allocated six to Lebanon’s Metn region, in vulnerable substandard shelters of up to 1,300 meters in altitude. Meanwhile, four devices were distributed across informal tent settlements in the Beqaa valley. UNHCR Shelter chose the pilot locations and coordinated the visits and family introductions, and then continued to liaise with KwikSense on a regular basis to discuss how to interpret and make the most out of the data gathered.

The data KwikSense brings is vital to the UN office's assistance strategy.

Najjar, who pointed out that KwikSense’s successful pilot implementation demonstrated the value of the service, added that the team is currently in talks with UNHCR to scale and deploy hundreds of sensors in the coming weeks.

According to Najjar, prior to KwikSense, there were no real-time platform to track the temperature or environmental living conditions within a refugee shelter. “This data is extremely important for helping inform the UN and their NGO partners on how they distribute services, especially in Lebanon, where harsh winters demand a consistent delivery of winter kits to the most vulnerable populations,” he told Wamda.

At scale, the data KwikSense gathers this year will help UNHCR assess the winter needs of refugees, and draw up financial plans for future winterization programs. The UNHCR is providing millions of dollars in aid to thousands of families through its cash assistance efforts, and is relying mainly on altitude maps for its needs assessment strategy. KwikSense’s innovation will bring new data to bear on the matter, which, if made use of, may well save lives and keep families safe, all at a lower cost.

Model for future humanitarian innovation

Humanitarian actors alone will not solve the world’s major conflicts. Increased engagement with stakeholders who have diverse financial and technological resources is key to steering the humanitarian sector’s progress in a more sustainable direction, while also providing opportunities for innovators like KwikSense to grow.

KwikSense is planning on turning into a company.

With this in mind, Najjar and team are considering officially establishing themselves as a company. “We are still experimenting with a number of business model options and will know more on this pending...the type of contract we are able to negotiate with UNHCR post-pilot,” explained Najjar.

The team is keen on making data-licensing a core aspect of its pricing model. Members are currently working on aggregating data and building a ‘dashboard’ for potential clients to analyze, share, and export the information contained therein, so that it might become a one-stop-shop for building, deploying, and managing IoT solutions.

After that, Najjar plans to deploy no fewer than 500 KwikSense kits throughout Lebanon. As for his and his colleagues’ long-term goal, it is to create, in his words, “a highly adaptive sensor platform that can be used to measure a variety of real-time conditions across the globe.”

Feature images via Pixabay.

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