Can accessible ICT tools foster migrant integration in European countries?

This article is part of a Special Issue on The Social Value of European Research on Media Accessibility.

In the last decades, the European Union has experienced a large influx of refugees who were forced to flee their country to escape conflict or persecution. In 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that there were 25.4 million refugees worldwide and a total of 43.1 million internally-displaced people. Seeking safety and a better life is the motivating factor of the 2 million refugees that have recently reached Europe. In addition to the many challenges that they face on their way, integration in Europe is not always easy. The barriers that they have to overcome when arriving to European countries are numerous: financial, legal, linguistic, cultural and bureaucratic, to name a few.

To date, there is no uniform, holistic EU approach to migration, and each Member State struggles to respond to the crisis and integrate the arriving communities. In Italy, Greece and Spain, entry points for the majority of refugees, there is a need for additional support to provide for the large number of vulnerable populations seeking asylum. In particular, communication challenges call for urgent measures to be adopted: local authorities and stakeholders have reported frustration in trying to convey to migrants the rules now underpinning their integration process. Apart from the inherent complexity of these rules, which may lead to confusion per se, this communication problem is partly explained by the highly heterogeneous nature of migrants in terms of educational background and language skills.

In order to tackle some of these issues, in 2018 the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme funded the REBUILD project, under Grant agreement 822215. Starting from the premise that communication lies at the core domains of integration, the project pursues the development of an accessible ICT tool able to efficiently cater for the communication needs of both local service providers and migrants during the first stages of the integration process. During the first phase of REBUILD, background information as regards profiling and needs analysis will be gathered, in order to then develop an AI-based skill-needs matching tool to link migrant needs with services provided at local level in each country involved in the project. The main output of the project will be a digital companion for migrants enabling personalized two-way communication: by means of chatbots, users will be provided information about available public services and will be given tips to access them. The tool will allow users to share immediate feedback as regards the usefulness of the support received, which is bound to help future users follow their own procedures.

The design of this tool aims to respond to the heterogeneous educational and linguistic background of potential users. The tool will be multilingual and multimodal. It will resort to non-verbal communication to convey information, in the form of pictograms and short explanatory video chunks, both based on universal design principles. Throughout the project, target users will validate the pictograms and the other non-linguistic communication devices that will be employed.

In order to obtain such a validation, as well as to foster usability and accessibility of the tool, focus groups are being held with all the parties involved (migrants, service providers, authorities) in Greece, Italy, and Spain. These research actions are bound to provide valuable feedback to design a tool that meets the expectations of users in terms of the cultural markers employed and the usefulness of the content included. The project thus employs the notion of culturability (the relationship between culture and usability) which translates in user preferences: by exposing participants to different stimuli, the discussion sessions scheduled for REBUILD are meant to explore technology use among migrants and refugees, both with regard to their current practices and expertise and to their preferences as users in features such as layout, font, direction of text and navigation styles, among other.

This way of ensuring a user-centered approach is intended to promote the sustainability of the digital companion. By allowing users to create and update content, the tool will tackle the issues encountered by the existing apps, which fail to stay up-to-date with the available services and information relevant for refugees. The joint work of partners with different backgrounds (humanitarian, ethical, technological, linguistic) is expected to serve as a solid basis for the creation to a platform that proves to be truly useful and escapes an early visit to the “app cemetery.”

By Blanca Arias-Badia*
María Jiménez-Andrés
Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain
*Corresponding author:
Blanca.Arias (at) uab.cat

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