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The recent refugee crisis in Europe has repeatedly highlighted the urgent need for communication technology for people on the move, from mapping their journeys to accessing services at their destinations.
Since leaders at the global I.T. and networking group Cisco saw the humanitarian situation on European borders escalating in 2015, they have tried to deploy the company’s products and people to improve connectivity for refugees in a scalable and sustainable way.
Working with nonprofit partners, the multinational company set up Wi-Fi hotspots in refugee camps across Greece, Slovenia and Serbia, and helped to develop first response centers in Germany that offer a real-time translation service. They have also deployed cloud security software to protect refugees from cyberthreats.
As part of our interview series with private sector leaders engaging in the refugee crisis, Refugees Deeply spoke to Erin Connor, Cisco’s portfolio manager for critical human needs, about the organization’s response to refugees’ needs.
Refugees Deeply: Could you describe a moment when you became convinced that the company had a role to play in addressing the refugee crisis?
Erin Connor: Cisco typically responds to natural disasters only, but the refugee situation became a humanitarian crisis of such proportions that, in October 2015, we chose to make an exception to our policy.
We started by expanding the scope of our annual hunger relief drive to include organizations responding to the refugee crisis, based on employee interest. We added over 40 NGOs to the campaign, and Cisco Foundation matched employee contributions dollar for dollar.
We subsequently awarded cash grants to nonprofit partners NetHope and Mercy Corps, and provided networking and communications equipment to the German Red Cross. In addition to these donations, Cisco took an active role in our area of expertise. We sent equipment and employees to Greece and Slovenia (and provided remote technical support and equipment for Serbia), to set up Wi-Fi hotspots at refugee camps in partnership with NetHope.
Refugees Deeply: How did you decide what would be the most useful and efficient role for the company to play?
Connor: We chose to pursue a multi-pronged approach to our response, leveraging our core competencies – our people, products, expertise and financial resources – to respond to the refugee crisis.
We have done this in a number of ways: by encouraging and matching the generosity of our employees to provide critical financial support to responding organizations; by awarding cash grants to strategic nonprofit partners to provide internet-based information and coordination services to refugees and NGOs on the ground, and by donating Cisco equipment to establish Wi-Fi hotspots and connectivity to refugees on the move and in camps. We have also provided time, expertise, and in-kind technical support through our Tactical Operations, Disaster Response Team volunteers and Central European team.
Refugees Deeply: What results have you seen from the company’s refugee programs to date, and what are your goals for the next year?
Connor: Cisco’s Tactical Operations (TacOps) engineers and Disaster Response Team volunteers have carried out 10 two-week deployments in partnership with the NGO NetHope to install Meraki-based Wi-Fi networks across Greece, Slovenia and Serbia.
A total of 75 sites (64 are currently active, as some have been decommissioned due to the moving population) have provided connectivity to over 600,000 unique user devices since November 2015. Using our cloud security software, we block an average of 2,000 cyberthreats per day.
Cisco also funded the prototype of the first two Refugee First Response Centers (RFRCs), which was a concept developed by the Cisco team in Hamburg and a range of ecosystem partners. The RFRC units are shipping containers transformed into doctors’ offices, equipped with Cisco technology that enables access to the internet and real-time translation for refugees.
The early units caught the attention of a local private donor, who funded the production of 10 additional units that have been produced and deployed to Red Cross camps throughout Hamburg, providing over 18,000 medical video-supported consultations to date. Two of the 10 units replaced the original RFRCs, and have been shipped to Lebanon and Greece for replication.
In terms of what’s next, we’ve committed equipment and employees’ expertise to support deployments with NetHope this next quarter to set up connectivity in an additional 12 sites.
Through our Networking Academy, we’ve committed to training 35,000 refugees in Germany over the next three years (15,000 by the end of this year). We’ve also just provided funding to Mercy Corps to support the expansion of Refugee Information Hub, a platform jointly developed with the International Rescue Committee, into seven new countries in 2017. The RFRC team (led by Cisco partner MLOVE) is also hoping to produce and deploy an additional 100 units.
Lastly, we’re planning to commission a third-party evaluation to look into the specific impacts of connectivity on refugee populations.
Refugees Deeply: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far in your work with refugees? What have you learned about the risks and opportunities that companies are likely to face in addressing the refugee crisis?
Connor: I think we’ve seen firsthand just how critical connectivity is for refugees. It’s a way for them to connect with loved ones, access critical information and even begin the asylum-seeking process in a new country. “Is there Wi-Fi?” is one of the first questions refugees ask when arriving in a new place.
As cyberthreats are becoming more advanced and prevalent, and data privacy and protection is vital for the refugee population, the importance of building cybersecurity protections into the network architecture cannot be understated.
As it is apparent that refugees may be in these camps for an extended period of time, the issue of education is becoming more urgent. Having connectivity opens up opportunities for online training and remote education that could benefit children as well as adults seeking to gain job skills.
With every deployment we are learning lessons and developing best practices to improve function and efficiency. For example, we now have solution “kits” that can be built ahead of time in a controlled environment, and easily and quickly installed upon arrival at a camp.
Field deployments also give us a lot of insight into how our products function under real-world and often extreme conditions, which we then feed back to our product teams who can develop enhancements and new features. Our TacOps team also quickly learned that the internet lines in a camp need to be clearly labeled – no one wants to be that person who cuts off connectivity for an entire camp.
Refugees Deeply: How are you measuring the success of the company’s refugee programs?
Connor: We provide in-kind support, technical expertise and equipment through our TacOps team, cash grants to nonprofit partners and I.T.training through our Networking Academy, so we evaluate success differently across these three categories.
In establishing Wi-Fi, we look at the number of refugees connected to the internet, and the number of cyberthreats blocked through our networks. It’s important to us that they not only benefit from connectivity, but that they are also protected from any outside threats to their identity or safety.
Through our Networking Academy, we are tracking the number of refugees in Germany that take and complete our I.T. training courses.
Through our cash grants, we base our success on the ability of our nonprofit partners to meet the performance metrics they set. For example, we have just provided funding to help expand Refugee.Info. Some success metrics for this project include number of users, countries and user ratings to understand refugees’ satisfaction with the platform and content provided, which will inform future product development or service improvements.
This interview was conducted by email and has been lightly edited for clarity.