A Week in the Life of an Innovation Colleague: Part 1

An exploratory mission for scoping a new project to support the Response for Venezuelans

Vicky Maskell, U-Report On The Move Coordinator

22 July 2019

For the thousands of Venezuelans crossing the border into neighbouring countries every single day, access to information on services available is sparse, and the opportunity to participate in the development and improvement of these services is almost non-existent. ‘Venezuelan migrants and refugees’ is far from one homogenous group and needs vary between every individual, but do we have existing tools that could bridge the information divide and give these people a voice?

The simple answer – is we think we do. We think an adapted U-Report might be a key tool for this response.

And when we think something, as innovation people we start to get a bit restless, because the questions start running around our heads. We want to find out more information, we want to probe and test, we want to talk to people on the ground, to understand their situation and needs, to get evidence to see if and how our idea may, or indeed may not, work.

It’s time for the exploratory mission.

Venezuelan adolescents crowd around UNICEF colleague Mathias, asking him to teach them Danish.

Day 1: To The Field

Ideas can come to us anywhere, sparked by anything. So, the fact that I think U-Report could support the Response for Venezuelans, doesn’t mean I’m anywhere near the people I need to talk to – Venezuelans, crossing borders, setting up a new life in new towns and cities. We headed to Boa Vista, a city in in Roraima, the north-eastern district of Brazil that borders Venezuela to the north and west, and Guyana to the east.

We arrive. It’s hot and pretty humid. It’s 4am. We’ve been travelling a long time. The prospect of the days ahead absorbing details around me, talking to people, digging to find what are the potential problems of our idea so we can see how to mitigate them is exciting, and I fall asleep quickly amongst a haze of thoughts and expectations.

The moment that thousands of Venezuelans leave their home country behind and enter Brazil, the land of their future.

By midday we’re up and having a look around this slightly dusty town. It’s very regular – some shops, people walking around, the wide Branco river providing a border to the town. We head to the UNICEF Boa Vista sub-office. We’re greeted with smiles, and a whiteboard full of stats and charts of how many refugees and migrants are on the street, in each shelter, in schools. We listen to our colleagues give us a summary of the situation, and help us to navigate the complexities that the influx of people arriving from Venezuela is producing.

Tomorrow we’ll see this with our own eyes.

Day 2: To The Shelters

We quickly see that each of the 13 shelters are different. There’s the one that houses indigenous groups, with row upon row of hammocks strung up in the central area housing one group which is sandwiched between the white tented community on one side, and the thatched wooden structured community on the other. The drinking water station is confused with a toilet, as those who are used to living by a river see running water as the safest place to defecate. Most people don’t engage with us, but a little girl and her friend come over, she tells me she’s been playing a lot today before skipping off again.

Colleagues from different agencies walk around Rondon 3 camp in Boa Vista, talking about possible ways technology can support refugees and migrants.

Nearby is Jardim Florestra, a camp that houses several hundred people. A small group of young children told me they were playing ‘how to make a home in a camp.’ Here we hold our first focus group with about twenty adolescents aged 12-17. Some are looking after younger siblings, and they sit in an L shaped format, listening and answering my questions. About a quarter of them have a mobile phone, they almost all have a Facebook account. There is talk of music videos and looking up fashionable hairstyles. They say they are sometimes shouted at by people in the street and called names. They say there is no WiFi that they can access and to get data for their phone they work, washing cars or selling items they can find.

For me this information is crucial – it provides my first alarm bell for the project we are looking at – one that is based using digital tools. If our service is attractive and young people want to take part, we may be encouraging them to work unintentionally. Its information stored, and pondered, and thought about over the days to come.


Continue reading Part 2 here and Part 3 here