When a refugee arrives in a new country their material belongings may be few, but they carry a heavy burden of trauma, fear, and uncertainty about the future.
Many newly arrived refugees do not speak the language of the new land. This makes it difficult for them to find the information necessary to access essential humanitarian services, like healthcare or shelter. Linguistic and myriad other barriers make it difficult to know who or what to trust. This uncertainty can lead to misleading, harmful rumors and misinformation in refugee or migrant communities.
Recognizing that access to information is crucial in times of crisis, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Mercy Corps launched Signpost at the height of the European refugee crisis in 2015. Designed to respond directly to the needs of refugees arriving from Greece with nothing but their cell phones, Signpost put the power of information into the hands of refugees.
“Signpost is a community-led humanitarian information service that shifts the power back to people impacted by crises. We flip the paradigm in information services—rather than available information being informed by responders and authorities, it’s the community who decides what information they need to find safety from violence, protect loved ones from infectious disease, exercise their human rights, claim asylum, or find economic opportunities,” said Signpost’s Global Director Andre Heller.
“The priority is to listen before we speak to ensure that we’re addressing the actual needs of affected people rather than delivering a message we think is most important to them.”
Since 2015, Signpost has expanded to help more than 14.9 million people making life-saving decisions in over 14 countries on five continents, in 11 languages.
Heller says the traditional approach to humanitarian information services contributes to confusion and misinformation. “Crisis or aid responders come into crisis situations with messages they think are important for people impacted by crisis, whether by news topics or promoting their own services. This isn’t always helpful or relevant for refugees who have their own specific needs.”
“We don’t assume that we know what people need. Instead, we meet them where they are, on the digital platforms they already use, to discuss, respond, and adapt.”
– Andre Heller, Global Director, Signpost
Using a suite of software components, including partnerships with Google, Facebook, Twilio, Cisco, and Zendesk, a team of local, frontline responders and support personnel use journalistic and humanitarian expertise to ensure the right information products are created and adapted to the realities of the refugees they seek to support.
“We speak to people in the language that reflects their written and spoken dialect. We don’t assume that we know what people need. Instead, we meet them where they are, on the digital platforms they already use, to discuss, respond, and adapt,” said Heller.
How does Signpost work?
Each Signpost project is set up on the ground in partnership with local organizations to create a networked approach. The name and form of the information services are decided collaboratively with these organizations and the refugees themselves, who Signpost refers to as clients.
“We create localized information services that people will encounter largely through their Facebook feed, although a lot of projects use Instagram, WhatsApp, or other forms of social media as well,” said Heller.
“Once they click on them, it will take them to our website where we have a service map and various channels to speak with digital community liaisons who are highly-trained professionals who speak the same language and are from the same community and can provide psychosocial, first aid, legal, or other services. We also have an editorial team that creates information products that provide the self-expressed information needs of the clients. Every product is bespoke to the individual area and population they serve.”
Signpost hires its personnel directly from the community of clients it is there to help. “We view [our clients] as agents of change in their own lives and we respect them as such. We equip them with the knowledge they need to make decisions about how they choose to navigate their way through a difficult time,” said Heller.
Zendesk helps drive efficiency
In 2019, Zendesk’s Tech for Good program and the IRC first partnered to support IRC’s efforts in providing a safety net for asylum-seekers at a Welcome Center in Phoenix, AZ. The software solutions were later piloted in a Signpost project in Colombia. They’ve since been expanded to five more global projects.
“The Zendesk platform and tools and support have helped us fuel global growth and scaling of our programs. It has enabled a huge efficiency gain in the creation of new information services that are really networked and increased our ability to have better metrics that help us derive insights to do our job better,” said Heller.
“It’s quite literally a better, faster, and cheaper way for us to operate.”
Signpost uses the Zendesk Support Suite, a seamless integration with the org’s Contentful CMS tool, and has access to the Unlimited Multibrand add-on. These solutions allow Signpost projects to easily populate service articles and render service locations on Signpost’s Service Map so refugees can access the critical information they seek. In addition to facilitating the creation of knowledge articles and the rendering of service maps, Zendesk allows each project’s team to communicate with clients through a number of different channels in order to answer important questions.
“We use the Support Suite to create a ticketing system that enables us to respond to different social media channels and the analytics are also game-changing for us,” said Heller.
The Signpost partnership is Tech for Good’s largest professional services engagement to date. Zendesk’s tools and support are expected to be rolled out to 11 Signpost projects by the end of 2021.