Learning about Smart Refugee Camps at the Turing Talks

Eva Kaplan, an innovation specialist with UNICEF Jordan

Eva Kaplan, an Innovation Specialist for UNICEF in Jordan.

I had the privilege on Tuesday to attend the inaugural Turing Talks – a one-day conference with the aim of exploring the disruptive power of technology in the developing world.

The speakers covered a wide range of topics, speaking on everything from EduTech and solar power to banking and the gender gap. I only arrived at the conference at 12 and left at around 4, but still managed to catch eleven different speakers (not to mention lunch!) so it was certainly an agenda absolutely jam-packed with interesting speakers who were all incredibly accomplished in their respective fields.

My personal favourite of the day was Eva Kaplan, an Innovation Specialist for UNICEF in Jordan who spoke about her work on using smart technology on refugee camps in the country.

Eva began by telling us that there are 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan (660,315 of which are registered) which makes up about 1/3 of the population – making it clear that the refugee situation in countries neighbouring Syria is on an utterly different scale to what we are experiencing in Europe.

She then continued to show the audience a picture of her hometown of Portland, Maine and telling us that there were certain assumptions we make when we see that picture. We assume that there is a functioning water system. We assume there’s a mobile network, schools and playgrounds.

“In a refugee camp on the other hand…” she began, and here I fully confess I thought she would say that there were none of these things. However, she proceeded to tell us how the refugee camps in Jordan have all of these amenities.

The difference is that they are essentially put up overnight, whereas Portland, Maine has had 400 years to get to where it is today. It is, in her words, a “massive undertaking”.

She spoke of waste collection and how they were using laser readers and dynamic algorithms to deal with the challenges posed by waste management on such a huge scale.

A skills exchange was in place in the camp, whereby for example a camp inhabitant with a background in construction had helped a barber construct a shed in exchange for haircuts for him and his sons. Eva said that while this skills exchange was currently managed by camp workers, “of course what we want to do is digitise this”.

There was the hope that this could eventually – with the help of technology – run itself, enabling a sophisticated system of trading goods and services according to need.

Read more about Eva Kaplan here.