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Monday, August 19, 2013

Children Lost in War Zones and Disasters Find Their Families With an App

Entrepreneurs often talk about the “pain points” their new app or service will ease, but as it has been repeatedly pointed out, the problems they solve are more often than not the problems of affluent and hyper-connected 20-somethings in cities with great cell service and ample Wi-Fi.

The problem and pain encountered by a lost child in the developing world, though â€" someone with maybe no parents and no last name, and almost certainly no cellphone â€" are tended to less often.

But for Jorge Just, a student in a class called “Design for UNICEF,” at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts, it was exactly the kind of problem he wanted to tackle â€" and one in which he though a little technology could make a real difference for people suffering under tremendous emotional distress.

During five visits to Uganda, Mr. Just found that older systems for lost children depended on lots of legwork, picture walls and suitcases full of paper-based forms that were manually entered into large databases.

“A child might be on one side of a refugee camp, and their parents might be on the other side, but for all intents and purposes, they might as well be on different continents,” he said. “Even small distances in those situations can feel insurmountable.”

So he started working on a way to help. After three years of development, his Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification app, or RapidFTR, is now connecting lost children with their families much more quickly than ever before.

According to UNICEF, RapidFTR’s ability to photograph, record and share information about lost children has reduced the time it takes to reunite families from over six weeks to just hours.

The app was not particularly complicated, from a technical standpoint, but Mr. Just wanted to make sure it was something aid organizations would actually adopt.

To do that, he resisted the temptation of dreaming up a grandiose plan to revolutionize refugee camp systems and processes. Instead he focused on creating a simpler and digital version of processes that had once been carried out with paper and pencils.

“You have to remember that people who are using it are not as nearly as comfortable with technology as the people who are building it,” he said. “And they’re using it in times of pure distress.”

Meant to run on hardware already in the field, like Blackberry devices, RapidFTR can add a child to the system with only scant bits of information. If a child cannot give their full name, or is too young or too scared speak, a photo alone can begin the process. The app works both with and without a wireless connection, by syncing to a server later, if needed.

RapidFTR is being deployed in South Sudan and has already been used at the Nyakabade Transit Center and the Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement camp in Uganda, where children from Democratic Republic of Congo often arrive after fleeing attacks by rebel groups. Mr. Just said that he was aware of at least 70 children who have been reunited with their families through the app so far.

His earlier projects in the N.Y.U. program were more whimsical. He created things like automated telephone pranks, but the child reunification app became his master’s thesis, and he later joined UNICEF as an employee. With the assistance of some pro-bono engineering from the software company Thoughtworks, he was able to get the program going and then recruited an army of volunteers to build RapidFTR.

Today the program is entirely open-source and driven by volunteers. Mr. Just, too, has now become a volunteer for his own app, in addition to teaching the “Design for UNICEF” class that he was once a student in.

Last week, UNICEF awarded $50,000 to develop three applications by students in the N.Y.U. program, including a cheap device for extracting power from car batteries, a pop-up network for sending text messages when cellular networks are not working and an application to deliver medicine disaster sites, using drones.

In considering his own project, as well as those of his future students, Mr. Just said, “one of the things I kept telling myself, was: you don’t have to ‘change the world’ to change the world.”