Becca Chong
Staff Writer

The phrase “there’s an app for that” is often thrown around to capture the creative spirit and potential of mobile technologies. The vast array of apps push the limits of what we think is possible; from the useful to the unique to the useless, it seems that anything can be packaged in a neat little widget on a touchscreen.

One unexpected but thought provoking use of mobile tech is its ability to help Syrian refugees find safety, learn about the process of applying for asylum, and integrate into the society of the country they end up in. As of February 2016, there is an estimated four million registered Syrian refugees, not including those who have not reached official channels of help. Essential considerations like language barriers, job security, stable housing, access to healthcare, and other essential services are a challenge to those who migrate to new homes under the best of circumstances. For refugees fleeing from violence and instability, they are infinitely harder. Now, the power of technology and collaboration is transforming that journey.

Having knowledge is paramount in navigating one’s way into a foreign new world. In this age of hyper access to information, the challenge is filtering and presenting the most relevant and useful resources for  refugees. By applying technological solutions to this age old set of problems, many innovative solutions have burst forth.

The media visibility of the hardships Syrian refugees face reached a fever pitch when the heart wrenching tragedy of the young boy became one of the most powerful faces of the refugee crisis. He drowned in his attempt to cross part of the Mediterranean Sea in his escape, garnering sympathy and outrage across the world. The tech community responded to Obama’s call for Silicon Valley to step up to the challenge, and since then, the response to the challenge of helping thousands of displaced people has been growing steadily. Both specific companies and the tech community at large have responded to these calls, like Techfugees. The non-profit is “a tech community response to the European refugee crisis” with representatives from NGOs, tech companies, entrepreneurs and startups gathering for conferences, and hackathons to find solutions for these pressing issues.

As representatives of a larger sentiment and drive to apply these hard skills and technological advances to real-world issues, specific companies have stepped up as well. These include Kickstarter, who made the refugee crisis a special case for having non-profit fundraising campaigns, and Airbnb, who is assisting in arranging free housing for aid workers.

The apps that have come out of this movement are primarily focused on delivering clear and concise information about how to navigate the new places a refugee might find themselves. A concept called information precarity, “a term referring to the condition of instability that refugees experience in accessing news and personal information,” highlights the importance of being able to access the correct information at the most relevant time.

Germany has shown itself to be an innovative hub for tech-driven solutions to pressing societal changes.  In light of Angela Merkel’s declaration of Germany’s policy to be open refugee applicants, several applications aimed at helping newly arrived migrants in the country have been created. One of them is Flutchtlinge Willkommen (“Refugees Welcome”), a product of a collaboration between two German non-profits, that aims to make housing more accessible for newly accepted refugees. The application works by engaging the local community, working to connect refugees with everyday people who have open hearts and open homes. It matches flatmates together based on specific measures of compatibility. The app has extended beyond its country of origin; now places like Greece, Portugal, and even Canada have actively started using the app. As of February 2016, the total number of refugees who have been matched to temporary homes is 527. It speaks to the power of crowdsourcing as a solution for a problem that is widespread and difficult to generalize, as in this case of finding roommates.

Once housing is established, access to services becomes the next challenge. Welcome to Dresden focuses on providing refugees and asylum seekers with up-to-date information about getting registered for healthcare, legal advice, and public authorities to contact. The importance of multiple languages being supported, local contacts, and the ability to use the app without a constant internet connection speak to how the creators of the app really focused and catered to the needs of their user base.

These tech-driven solutions have not been limited to the side of the refugee-accepting countries; many refugees themselves have been active in the cause. The app Gherbtna was created by Mojahed Akil, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, to specifically disseminate information about “jobs offers, registration requirements for Syrian students to attend universities, regulation regarding residence permits and information about settlements like which areas are safe and which are being shelled… Anything that is useful for Syrian refugees.” This is an example of how a very powerful user need drove one individual to learn the skills to create a tool to fulfill it. All of these applications embody a perspective expressed eloquently by Akil himself: “from my own experience I learned that knowledge is power and the best way to help these victims, the best thing to support these refugees is to educate yourself, get facts and work hard.” 

Empathy is how knowledge can be harnessed and directed to create collaborative, innovation solutions to large scale social challenges such as the Syrian refugee crisis. Apps that aim to help refugees settle into their new homes and integrate into society – socially and economically – are especially important for mediating the long term implications of the violence in Syria and those displaced by it. The potential of mobile technologies is staggering, but it always remains based in human intentions. So long as there is a will, there is a way, and for Syrian refugees looking to find theirs, there very well may be an app for that.  

Image by Nicolas Vigier


High Tech Inside by aotaro

By Kris Klein

Staff Writer

Cyber Sovereignty: The Economic Imperatives of a Secure Cyberspace

Mounting tensions spark talk of war as the table is set for a dinner between rivals. On the eve of the first state visit to the United States by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a single occurrence seems to calm threats of economic sanctions and cyber-attacks. Chinese hackers, accused by the United States of stealing trade secrets, are quietly arrested by their own government.

Reports of the arrests found a welcome, yet wary audience in American media. They are a sign of goodwill from China at a time when relations have grown determinedly apprehensive.

The United States and China maintain a relationship fraught with angst over cyber-espionage. As early as 2007 US officials accused China of stealing designs for a major American weapons system, and by 2013 the tally grew to as many as two dozen major weapons systems that were reportedly compromised by Chinese hackers.

In 2014, a Senate panel found that Chinese hackers had infiltrated the computer systems of private firms involved in the transportation of US troops and military equipment.

In 2015, a massive cyber-attack that originated in China infiltrated the federal Office of Personnel Management, exposing the personal information of millions of government employees.

The Obama administration has been lenient in its response to Chinese hacking that is used for military or political purposes and has tried to distinguish between these attacks and the types of attacks that are used to gain commercial or economic advantage. The US continues to struggle with engraining that principle in the conduct of international espionage.

During Xi Jinping’s US visit, he and Barack Obama vowed that their governments would not engage in or support commercial espionage. The verbal agreement between the two leaders tenders an opportunity for US diplomats. If China were to cede its commercial espionage programs, it would be a profound victory for US efforts to impede such spying.

Despite hope of progress, suspicions linger.

US intelligence officials expressed doubt that China will follow through on its promises. None of the hackers arrested by the Chinese government have yet to be prosecuted and reports continue to surface of subsequent Chinese commercial hacking of private American companies.

Punishing any future commercial spying, even if being permissive of political spying, can strengthen American innovation. While gradual progress is made in halting Chinese hacking altogether, the priority of the US is to protect innovation and technology. Setting clear limits on what the US deems permissible will deter foreign actors from stealing American technology.

The importance of Intellectual Property to Protecting Innovation

Legal protection for those who develop new ideas and technologies encourages advances that makes the US economically competitive. When those protections are not enforced, innovation falters and so does the economy. In a report to the United States Congress, the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property emphasized the economic consequences of allowing IP theft to go unpunished.

Theft of technology robs companies of their investment in developing designs for competitive technologies. When these designs are stolen the result is typically cuts to payrolls that cost the American economy jobs.

IP theft also diminishes the incentives companies have to invest in future research and development. If a company cannot be guaranteed that a potential investment in research will offer any form of competitive advantage, the company has no reason to invest in research at all. The decline of investment in research and development means slower innovation and fewer new technologies to help create economic growth.

Chinese Hacking and the Threat to Intellectual Property

The commission’s report highlights China’s cyber-attacks as a particularly potent threat to protecting innovation. The commission identified China as the world’s most persistent perpetrator of IP theft, revealing that hacking from China accounts for between fifty and eighty percent of the value stolen in commercial espionage.

Sustained Chinese commercial hacking would be a significant setback for global efforts to strengthen intellectual property rights. How China chooses to develop its own legal system can be a useful tool in gauging the respect the Chinese government has for innovation and its willingness to help protect intellectual property.

Problems with China’s Legal Protections for Innovation

In 2012 the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published a report on China’s patent process in which it outlined legal enforcement as a major concern of American companies.

In order for a Chinese court to hear a legal case, the court must first accept the case. However there are no specific criteria outlining if a court will or will not accept a particular case, nor do courts publish the reasons they had against accepting a case. This leaves judges the power to arbitrarily decide whether or not a case will be heard.

American companies cited discriminatory legal practices as one of their main concerns with China’s patent enforcement. Companies perceive China’s legal system as discriminating against American companies in the favor of their Chinese competitors.

The lack of legal enforcement allows technology to be stolen from American companies with little cost to the the Chinese companies doing the stealing. The lack of legal enforcement for patents held by US companies reflects the unwillingness of the Chinese government to respect intellectual property rights across the globe and in cyberspace.

Reform and Hope for Chinese Support of Intellectual Property

Earlier this year Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a new ideological campaign called “The Four Comprehensives”, and one ‘Comprehensive’ is of particular interest to the fate of IP in China.

Out of the Four Comprehensives, the third is the most significant to IP. The stated aim of Xi Jinping is to “Comprehensively govern the nation according to law”. The rule of law in China may aptly demonstrate the posture of Chinese leaders toward IP and the potential for those leaders to agree to limit the theft of IP through commercial cyber-espionage. Developing the rule of law in China by fighting corruption that hampers legal enforcement could be the key to developing China’s intellectual property rights into those of a modern economic power.

As China’s President presses on with his political campaigns against corruption and in support of his “Four Comprehensives”, the politically inclined on-looker will be wondering if these campaigns will bear fruit of substance to the economy and to international relations, or if they are merely Xi Jinping’s tools for consolidating power.

The potential growth of the global economy will be determined by our technological innovations, and therein lies the importance of China’s willingness to reform its behavior in both cyberspace and the courtroom. We can all hope that Chinese leaders mean what they say when they promise us their support for innovation and the rule of law.

Image by aotaro


By Rebecca Benest
Staff Writer

In a world where we are becoming increasingly dependent on our devices, new technological developments now called the Internet of Things, or IoT, could completely change the way we see technology and our world. On a daily basis, most of us use technology to continuously check email, send messages, instantaneously communicate across the world, count our calorie intake, and check the news, among other things. A wife at work who wants an errand run can easily call, text, email, or Face Time her spouse with a favor. But what if this became unnecessary? What if the same spouse, who wanted the lawn watered, did not need to ask anyone at all? What if her house was measuring the water in the soil, and in accordance with the predicted rain in the upcoming days, communicated with the watering system to keep the soil perfectly watered without wife, spouse, or child lifting a finger? This is the idea of the Internet of Things. Creating a “smart” house or a “smart” city opens us up to an endless amount of possibilities. As the mass gathering of personal data becomes a reality, however, there are dangers and concerns just as real.

The Internet of Things, instead of harnessing communication between machines, harnesses sensors. The sensors essentially gather and evaluate data; they can then communicate with a myriad of machines, throughout a house or a city, and can control the machines based on the data gathered. This is related to Cloud-based applications, which are constantly collecting similar information. The difference here is that our possibilities widen when the sensors are connected to our phones, cars, all the appliances in our homes, or the stoplights on every street. All these devices become one harmonious system, one massive machine coordinated perfectly and instantaneously.

Yet this moves beyond our alarm clock telling the coffee pot to turn on five minutes before the alarm goes off. Take a large bridge, for example. Bridges can be built with smart cement, which measures stress and cracks. This means the bridge can alert the city if there is any danger to its structure. In the winter, the smart cement can also measure the amount of ice on the road, warning all approaching vehicles to slow down and informing them of which areas are most slippery. Should a driver not heed the warning, the car can take over and slow itself down, according to safety protocol. In the same way, the car can tell the phone when it is in drive, and the phone can disable the texting mechanism to prevent texting while driving. The Internet of Things becomes a part of everything we do throughout the day, from our morning routines to the types of food we buy to the way our governments are structured; it maximizes efficiency and safety.

The Internet of Things Council, a think tank of (mostly European) professionals, explains the reach of IoT further than just our devices. They approach IoT as a complete paradigm shift, a change in the way we view our government, our society, and ourselves. They view it, most interestingly, as a method that would lessen evil in global society. The Internet of Things could potentially help create a more equal distribution of wealth; could limit resource gathering and minimize climate change; could optimize democracy, eradicate corruption, and allocate resources to best deal with all living diversity of the planet. Succinctly, “[we] believe such a system would systematically lessen the very potentiality of evil occurring.” Looking beyond a smart house, IoT could dramatically alter the way countries are governed, assuming governments can gather every minuscule datum on every citizen’s life.

While this does create the ability to “lessen evil,” there is an abundance of concerns. While IoT can work to enforce the law, easily catching crimes such as tax fraud, there’s worry that it’s less about what IoT can do, and more about who’s in control. If the billionaire tech moguls and government leaders are controlling the system and gathering the data, they can easily gather the data in the most profitable way possible. Furthermore, if the government is gathering data on our every motion to “prevent terrorism,” there are no lines or boundaries. We can use the same program that prevents terrorism to track the economic and social behaviors of a population, and that program can then communicate with every inanimate object in our lives to manipulate those behaviors to whatever extent deemed necessary. Because there is no way for any individual or group to gather and analyze data to that extent, there is no way to fact check anything we are being told; we have no choice but to blindly trust both government and tech company. In this light, the Internet of Things starts to become an eerie reminder of George Orwell’s 1984.

As such a new method of technology, still constantly expanding and testing limits, the Internet of Things is not yet something to be seen as immediately available. While we might not see the traffic lights telling our cars the quickest route from home to work any time soon, the reality of the technology is still rapidly increasing. As with almost all other modern progress, it is easy to see the myriad advantages and disadvantages, neither of which can or should be ignored. Yet regardless of your position on the matter, the Internet of Things is most likely a part of the looming future that needs to be continuously and critically discussed, both before and after implementation.

Photo by Flickr User dmje