MIA Spotlight: How an Open-Source Web-App is Solving A Refugee Aid Crisis

MIA Spotlight: How an Open-Source Web-App is Solving A Refugee Aid Crisis

April 1, 2019

Although the refugee crisis may no longer make daily headlines, the struggle continues for thousands of people who are trying to piece their lives back together in a new country where there is often little to no social or financial support. But why should refugees be in such short supply of warm clothing and food when organisations are often flooded with generous donations from members of the public? In order to delve into this paradox, this week we got the chance to tour a donation warehouse. It is in these warehouses where all the stock is sorted and distributed where the main challenge lies. The innovative work of Boxwise offers a solution to tackle this problem.  

Boxwise, winner of the European Youth Award and a participant of the MAN Impact Accelerator, is improving the logistics of these warehouses by digitalising the stock management and the distribution of donations.  Hans Peter Gürtner, founder of Boxwise, started as a volunteer in a refugee camp in Northern Greece and soon realised the huge waste of time and resources caused by the lack of adequate logistical tools. He took the initiative to address this and launched boxwise which is now operating in three camps throughout Greece managing 80 000 items for the benefit of thousands of people in need.

This simple app for smartphones enables to log and track the contents of each box of donations. The advantage is that it structures the categorization of items and enables a tracking of overall stock in the warehouse so organizations know what they have and where to find it.  

Thanks to his project, some refugees are now in a position to choose what donations they really need instead of merely taking what’s given to them.

Life in the Warehouse

When people imagine volunteering to help refugees they imagine themselves serving a hot plate of food or teaching English. But the reality is somewhat different. A large chunk of volunteers’ time is spent doing much less rewarding but crucial work: sorting and organising huge piles of donations in order to provide refugees with food, warm clothes, hygiene items, shoes and other basic items. It is thanks to this somewhat painstaking process that the masses of donations are sorted into useful items for refugees.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges within refugee camps is not the acquisition of donations; in fact, organizations are often flooded with people’s generosity. The challenge is the manpower required to sort this mammoth pile of goods before they can reach the refugees. By reducing the amount of time volunteers dedicate towards warehouse logistics, Boxwise are helping organisations deliver more efficient and effective support to refugees thus maximizing their impact.

                                                   A Visit to Pampiraki

Solene, a member of YSB, accompanied Boxwise on a visit to the Pamiraiki warehouse in Athens as they sought to test out the app and understand how they could adapt the app to the working processes of the warehouse. Seeing how people work on the ground was essential to making the app as practical as possible, and many insights were gained from this trial.

Lack of  Standardisation

Warehouses rely on the work of many different volunteers and cannot afford to train and manage closely each and one of them. This leaves the way of sorting and labelling donations open to each volunteers’ interpretation which leads to a heterogeneous categorisation system even within the same warehouse.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

The challenge for Boxwise is to find a model for their app which is flexible enough to fit varied situations between warehouses while not having to redesign the whole app every time.  The categories need to be nuanced and adapt to each warehouse’s existing practices to allow for situations where there may be ambiguity or a one-off item. Otherwise the risk is that the app being to rigid and probably to people not using it. Therefore, it is is important for the system to be intuitive and responsive to the needs of those using it but it should also be somewhat universal to maximise organisational efficiency. Boxwise will be working on this balance — adapting the app to reflect the reality on the ground and encouraging volunteers in the warehouse to evolve in their practices to utilise the app at its full potential.

Understanding the Core Workforce

Although there might be a demand from the warehouse manager for innovative logistical tools and digitalisation, it doesn’t follow that this will be easily adopted by the whole organisation. Volunteers are typically overworked and understaffed with a broad range of ages and languages which makes the adoption of uniform practices more difficult. Because of high staff turnover, it is also hard to keep working practices and protocols constant in time.  What’s more, the demographic in this greek warehouse took the team at Boxwise by surprise. They had expected to find the usual young, international, tech savvy crowd that often most typically get involved in volunteering schemes. In fact, they arrived to find elderly greek volunteers who were not confident in English and apprehensive and reluctant to using digital tools.

WHAT DID WE TAKE FROM THIS?

There needs to be a great deal of pedagogy to help all volunteers involved understand the value Boxwise can bring to their work.  It is important not to underestimate the social and cultural context of the people working in the warehouse. You have to be prepared for all situations and demographics.  To tackle the challenge of including and motivating all the volunteers, Boxwise is thinking of creating an incentive to use the web-app. One idea was to include personalised stats and messages that let users know exactly what contribution they’d made in their work that day.  It is important to understand well who are the users of the app to understand potential challenges and address them with the appropriate support and training. One idea is recruiting a local ambassador in each warehouse that can explain, motivate and train volunteers locally while giving feedback to Boxwise team.

DIGITALISATION IS NOT ALWAYS THE ANSWER

Digitalisation is a useful tool but not a magical bullet to make the world a better place.  For it to be useful and successful it must be implemented in parallel with organisational innovations.

In face of a continuing refugee crisis, Boxwise need your help!

  • Are you an organisation working with donations and volunteers and willing to implement Boxwise’s solution in Europe? Boxwise is looking to keep learning and implement many more test cases.
  • Have you overcome the issues of ‘digitalisation’ mentioned above? Boxwise is always open for top tips and support.
  • Are you looking to invest in an early-stage open source business that has a HUGE social impact? Then get in contact with HANS (hans@boxwise.co).

                                                 “There are many problems in the world, but only sometimes you have the chance to actually change

                                                          something with your own abilities and experience. That chance should always be taken.”

                                                                                                                                               – Hans Peter Gurtner, Founder of Boxwise


Stay tuned for updates on the MAN Impact Accelerator closing ceremony happening in Munich in June for a unique opportunity to meet the Boxwise team. For any media enquiries, please contact solene@yunussb.com our Communications Manager for MAN Impact Accelerator.

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