Schmidt Futures

A Rohingya woman talks with her relatives on a mobile phone after crossing the Naf river by boat in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 14, 2017, photo by Turjoy Chowdhury/Sipa/AP

fueling research to improve the lives of refugees

With a gift from philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures, RAND researchers are looking into how technology—from cell phones to biometric screeners—could improve the lives of the world’s 69 million refugees, displaced people, and asylum seekers.

March 7, 2020

RAND Researchers are looking into how technology—from cell phones to biometric screeners—could improve the lives of the world’s 69 million refugees, internally displaced people, and asylum seekers. The project is being funded by a charitable foundation that aims to solve world problems with the inventive zeal of a Silicon Valley startup.

Schmidt Futures, founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, longtime conservationist Wendy Schmidt, calls itself a venture fund for public benefit. It describes its mission with three bullet points: advance society through technology, inspire scientific breakthroughs, and promote prosperity.

Schmidt Futures came to RAND with a challenge. It was looking for investments that could help move the needle on big public-policy problems, and it was open to ideas. More than two dozen research teams within RAND made proposals; the refugee project stood out.

“Technology comes up every time we work on refugee issues—there could be better ways of addressing problems if technology were deployed in different ways,” said Shelly Culbertson, a senior policy researcher who is coleading the project. “The technological solutions that do exist are often fragmented, one-off solutions. They’re not woven through humanitarian governance structures. So we’re hoping to develop a road map for what that could look like.”

Culbertson has spent several years working to help displaced people in places like Syria and Iraq, suggesting better ways to provide them with education, jobs, and humanitarian assistance. She teamed up with Jim Dimarogonas, a senior engineer and specialist in information technology, who himself came to the U.S. after his family fled the 1967 military coup in Greece. Several generations of his family had also fled persecution and conflict.

Dimarogonas and Culbertson knew that technology can play an outsized role in the lives of people far from home and family. It’s a connection to loved ones, a source of job leads, even a way to learn the language of a new country. A recent United Nations survey found that refugees often think their phone and internet access is almost as important to their safety and security as food, shelter, and water.

But nobody had stepped back to assess the technological needs of refugees around the world, or how technological advances could help responding agencies and the refugees themselves. For example, one agency is distributing aid to refugees in Jordan at ATM machines with biometric identification. Another has created an online tracking tool that documented the displacement of Iraqi civilians in real time. But innovations like those have too often been piecemeal, with no overarching strategy to get them to more people in more places.

The researchers are interviewing policymakers involved in refugee work in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, the United States, and South America. They also plan to conduct focus groups with refugees, possibly in Ethiopia, Colombia, Jordan, Greece, and the United States.

Their research will lay out a plan for investing in technology on a global scale to better help displaced people.

Schmidt Futures has been critical to the work, Culbertson said—and not just as the sponsor. “Just having somebody pose the question at the right time and the right place, I think, was key to sparking ideas about what we could do,” she said.