IBM Sverige

Collaboration helps the Red Cross create virtual volunteers

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The news of the migrant crisis is not something we are able to ignore, but sometimes it takes one small piece of new information to change our understanding. For me it was over a cup of coffee in late 2015 when I realised that Sweden had become the destination of choice for many of the families fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Moreover, Malmö – where I live and work – had set up its first reception centre to offer basic assistance to migrants as they reached the end of their journey.

Volunteers and staff from the Swedish Red Cross were a very visible presence at the centre.

Later, during a coffee break at work, a colleague and I were discussing this new information and began thinking about how we might make a difference. The obvious answer was volunteering, so we called up the Red Cross and shortly after began our first shift at the reception centre. Up to 2,000 people were arriving each day on the train, all with questions on the most pressing issues: where can I find WiFi? Is there a doctor nearby? Where can I find food for my baby?

We were there to provide the answers, but it soon became obvious that we were not enough. And when we left the centre…

It was a revelation that information, in many circumstances, is as vital as food, medicine and clean clothes; aid is not just vaccines and wells, or hygiene and health services, but also the means with which to find and access these things. And if you’re arriving in a new place with no local knowledge, that information can mean survival.

Timely, accurate and trusted information would be something that refugees could count on after leaving their homes, friends and sometimes families, a way to navigate their way into a new life while staying safe.

Volunteering was good, but I wanted to do more. Fortunately, I work for IBM – a company with information management and accessibility at its heart, and the management in Sweden was already aware of the work we were trying to do at the reception centre. They agreed the company could do more, not just in terms of staff time for volunteering, but also doing what we do best: designing technological solutions to make lives easier.

We needed global reach, so approached the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and, together, we came up with an idea to put information into the hands of migrants and refugees even when no volunteer is in sight. This would help people find the necessities of life, but also provide a simple means of communication across language barriers, and allow users to make informed choices about their future.

We created a ‘Virtual Volunteer’ that is always available, always up­to­date and ready to serve. A source of verified local information that lives on any connected device.


This project, though, is only the start. The partnership between IBM and the IFRC is a major achievement that we believe will allow us to pair our human­centric design approach with a unique understanding of vulnerabilities around the world. No organization can know it all, but through collaboration we might come to better understand how communities use and share information during times of crisis. Today we’re talking about migration, but trusted, independent information can save lives during disaster, conflict or disease outbreak. This is a platform with potential.

As with the coffee­break realisation that kick started this project, we have created something that transforms small points of information into something which means so much more, something impossible to ignore.

/Henrik Dalin

Follow me at: Twitter logoTwitter @henkepenke och LinkedIn logo LinkedIn

To find out more visit: IFRC – Virtual Volunteer

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