ITP Professor Develops New App for Reuniting Refugee Families

By Shonna Keoga

Reuniting refugees separated from family members amidst a conflict, natural disaster, or political insurgence has historically been a tremendous challenge for even the most experienced aid organizations.

Young children can often only provide spotty details in terms of names and family origin. Resource constraints mean aid workers generally work off of paper forms that can languish in boxes before they’re cross-referenced. As a result, family members can remain separated from one another—sometimes within the same refugee camp—for months.

That waiting time can now be reduced to a number of hours, thanks to a new application developed for UNICEF by Tisch School of the Arts ITP alumnus and faculty member Jorge Just. Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification, also known as RapidFTR, is a mobile application that allows for flexible, digital input and cross- referencing of refugee information into a shared, secure database. According to UNICEF, which launched the app to bring together Congolese refugees in Uganda, RapidFTR has vastly accelerated the time it takes to identify family members in flux.

Just developed RapidFTR in 2010 while a student in the ITP class “Design for UNICEF,” taught jointly by Clay Shirky and UNICEF’s director of innovation, Christopher Fabian. He then joined UNICEF to further develop the app, while also taking over teaching the course from Shirky in 2011. Last fall, Just and Fabian refocused the class on Hurricane Sandy, tasking students with creating tools and applications to help not only in developing countries but also in developed countries facing natural disasters. Three of his students recently received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Fund for UNICEF to develop similar applications.

“This application is already helping children in Uganda and the fact that it’s open source gives us scope to easily modify and adapt it to whatever situations arise,” says Fabian. “RapidFTR is a perfect example of technology’s potential to change the face of humanitarian efforts throughout the world.”

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