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Focus on Migration: The wisdom of the crowd
  • Focus on Migration: The wisdom of the crowd

Copyright: Sven Torfinn/IRC/Panos

Speed read

  • Crowdsourcing has great promise for aiding forced migrants in remote areas

  • In 2011, it was used to help locate refugees' shelters from satellite data

  • Volunteers can assist with humanitarian communications or provide weather data

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is crowdsourcing ideas to help it disseminate information and improve service accessibility, especially in cities.

The most popular ideas generated from its staff and support groups so far include seeking feedback from refugees about UNHCR services and providing tailored web-based services for refugees. Experts are now reviewing these ideas.
Although such steps could help individual refugees in cities — but not necessarily those in camps or communities — there is even bigger scope for applying such information and innovations to rural areas.

This is especially important as UNHCR not only looks after refugees fleeing violence, conflict and persecution, but also people displaced by disasters. The number of disasters reported across the globe has doubled over the past two decades from about 200 to more than 400 a year. [1]

Crowdsourcing has helped UNHCR before. In 2011, for instance, a group of 'digital volunteers' helped the agency locate shelters built by displaced people in Somalia, a country that has faced several complex emergencies. The volunteers scanned huge volumes of satellite image data to identify the structures, with experts later validating their work. [2]
Other organisations are using crowdsourcing too. Amateur radio enthusiasts help with humanitarian communication and response in disasters, especially in remote areas and when phone lines get cut off.

They also observe and share weather and climate data online, aiding researchers. There are initiatives to analyse mobile phone usage data to understand migration patterns, and researchers are trying to adapt this method to understand labour migration in Bangladesh. [3] UNHCR could borrow and adapt some of these ideas.
With climate change threatening more extreme weather events, crowdsourcing could help development agencies get better information on how people perceive and respond to environmental changes and altered weather patterns. Creative use of media, including the Internet, radio, mobile phones, loudspeakers and comic strips, could be used to tell people about new ways of responding to changes, and feedback could be gathered by, for example, radio phone-in programmes.
People's responses to disasters often include new and varied mobility patterns, sometimes across borders. An understanding of what triggers such movements would help in planning humanitarian action.
Crowdsourcing is a relatively new idea, but given its potential value in harnessing the skills of a range of contributors, including refugees and internally displaced people, it looks like an approach UNHCR should further develop in order to help forced migrants in remote areas.
Max Martin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, researching on climate-related migration. The views expressed are his own.


[1] Haldorsen, K. Climate Change and Displacement: 42 million displaced by sudden natural disasters in 2010 (Norwegian Refugee Council, 6 June 2011)
[2] Meier, P. Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis for Somalia: Results of Trial Run (iRevolution, 31 August 2011)
[3] Smith, K. Mobile phones demystify commuter rat race (Nature, 4 June 2008)

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