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Innovating humanitarian response for refugees

KwikSense is a new plug & play sensor platform designed to provide real-time temperature data of refugee enclosures. After meeting at a UNHCR hackathon last year in Beirut, co-founders Georges Najjar, Hassan Salem, Marwan Ghamlouch and Rayan Zaatari have created an easily deployable device that will help improve the UNHCR’s winterisation response strategy.

 

As conditions in refugee camps worsen this winter, the reality on the ground for humanitarian assistance is one of complex challenges, characterised by overstrained systems and funding shortages. The situation is particularly difficult in Lebanon, as the country currently has the highest rate of refugees per capita in the world.

 

To put that into perspective – if Europe was to welcome the same proportion of refugees to its population, it would have to take in 100 million refugees. Start-ups and tech initiatives like KwikSense are responding to this need, finding new approaches and solutions to humanitarian assistance – and for this reason we decided to profile KwikSense as one of our development mutants.

 

We spoke with Georges Najjar, architect-turned-CEO of KwikSense, to find out more.

 

  1. You were inspired to apply Internet-of-Things technology to solve problems in Lebanon’s refugee camps. Can you tell us how the idea for KwikSense came about?

 

We all met at the Innovating Response Hackathon held last June in Beirut, sponsored by UNHCR and UNICEF. None of us knew each other prior to the event. I was still an architecture student at the time, and since I fit the category of being a designer I decided to apply and participate in the event in order to meet coders, hackers  and people from the UN.

 

Some of the team at the UNHCR Innovating Response Hackathon last June 2016

 

KwikSense emerged out of the need for the UNHCR to have real-time temperature data of refugee enclosures to help drive their winterisation strategy. The idea came from the whole team; we discussed what already existed in the market, shared our ideas with UN representatives at the event and came up with the solution. The fact that we came from different backgrounds helped a lot. Having a 17-year-old hardware geek in the team, an architectural student, a software engineer and a coder helped us form the A-Team.

 

The team winning at the UNHCR hackathon with their first prototype

 

  1. Refugees will be increasingly vulnerable this winter as weather conditions make life in the camps more hazardous. How will your innovation impact the delivery of humanitarian assistance?

 

There are 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and every winter, thousands of Syrian families are exposed to extremely cold weather conditions. UN agencies, NGOs and even commercial companies lack access to environmental data that is clearly organised and easy to collect.

 

That makes it extremely difficult for service providers to keep track of who needs the most assistance. Instead, these service providers base a USD 50 million dollar winter cash assistance program on static altitude maps and outdoor weather conditions, not the actual interior environment of where refugees live.

 

With KwikSense technology, and for the first time in the history of a UN refugee response, the UNHCR will be able to visualise temperature fluctuation on an interactive map and quickly verify that all shelters are sufficiently heated or at least receiving winter assistance.

 

Each shelter is equipped with a customisable device that transmits real-time data to an interactive dashboard that helps them better understand and predict where there is most need. Temperature fluctuation is detected by means of sensors on the device, which send the information to an online dashboard, accessible remotely via a computer or mobile device through a 3G dongle and a SIM card.

 

In the event of a temperature drop, a red light appears on the map and triggers a notification on a selected device, acting as an immediate warning signal.

 

Example of real-time map of temperature data

 

  1. You have achieved quite a lot since the hackathon, piloting the device with the UNHCR and now working with UNICEF. Can you tell us about your journey so far, and your experience working on the ground with refugees?

 

We were funded a small amount of money by UNHCR to pilot one device with one refugee family. We spent days with refugees trying to stand in their shoes and experience their day-to day struggles. No one can imagine the conditions they are living in, unless you leave your comfort zone and go and see for yourself. The families had nothing to keep their children warm and they couldn’t even ask the service providers for more help, since they were overwhelmed and didn’t even know who was in most need.

 

Piloting the device with refugees

 

In September 2016 after our first field visit, we installed our first prototype. The device had some bugs, and we dealt with many technical issues. At first the refugees were afraid of the device, they thought that it was a spying tool. But once we explained how it worked, showing the components and explaining to the kids, they were less stressed about it.

 

We also spent time working with NGO field workers observing their daily problems. Working with UNHCR officers was something new for us. Seeing the amount of work they have, running from one camp to another, we directly saw the need of using IoT devices to reduce the time and workload for the officers.

 

After a few months, and once we were more confident, we deployed 10 more prototypes in the field at different locations, and also developed a dashboard to take some readings. Exactly a year after the hackathon we signed a contract with UNHCR to deploy 300 devices for this coming winter.

 

Most recently we were picked by UNICEF to join their Elevate Impact Accelerator program, the first of its kind in the world that accelerates start-ups to support delivery of impact for the Sustainable Development Goals. For UNICEF we are adapting our platform to monitor water quality in water tanks for refugees, further validating our Sustainable Development Goal alignments.

 

  1. You now have a contract with UNHCR and are also working with UNICEF to accelerate the project. What are some of the opportunities and challenges that come with working with two big development agencies?

 

Both UNHCR and UNICEF have contributed funding to us through Lebanon’s Humanitarian Innovation Lab (HiL). To execute the pilot we received USD 4,500 in support. We were lucky to have the chance to work with them since they are the biggest UN agency helping refugees, so it gives good credibility to KwikSense when approaching a new client.

 

One of the challenges we have faced is that it took a year to sign the contract, as we are a start-up and not even a registered company yet. So it took a long time for them to find a way to agree to work with a non-registered company that has less than two years of experience compared to previous clients.

 

In the meantime working with the UN is just like working with any other type of client with similar operations, reporting to them weekly and keeping them up to date on our evolution.

 

  1. You have recently made plans to expand into the commercial sector. How does your commercial work differ from your humanitarian work, and do you have any plans to connect the two?

 

We initially were focused on the humanitarian opportunities for IoT, but we have begun to explore other traditional market opportunities. Beyond entities like UNHCR, we are also now speaking to restaurants and data centres in Lebanon to better understand how they currently measure and react to issues related to temperature and power consumption.

 

Impact is at the core of our business model and because of our technology, international organisations can deliver services and resources to vulnerable communities in a more effective and timely manner. Here comes the cool part: for every KwikSense device a for-profit commercial company or consumer purchases, KwikSense will offer one device to a UN agency to be deployed in the field and prevent a vulnerable family dying from the cold.

 

  1. As KwikSense continues to evolve and grow, what are some of the major challenges you foresee? What would success look like a few years from now?

 

Our short term goal was to get hundreds of KwikSense kits deployed throughout Lebanon. Now that we are in the process of executing this, our longer term objective would be to develop a highly adaptive sensor platform that can be used to measure a variety of real-time conditions across the globe.

 

We also want to target a bigger market of for-profit organisations, and work with ministries in Lebanon to monitor and track the sanitary conditions inside restaurants and storage rooms for food. Our ultimate goal is to build an online website where people and organisations can build their own customised IoT device in a very simple way.

 

The increasing demand for IoT is a major challenge for us, as we are not growing as fast as we should be. We plan to keep exploring different fields and evolving with the needs of the market. To overcome this we need  strategic mentorship and guidance to help us assess and size various opportunities in Lebanon and beyond, introductions to specified market thought leaders where necessary to help us gather further insights on current market needs and opportunities for IoT, funding to help cover our hardware and research costs, and design support to help us develop a professional and attractive brand and client-facing website.

 

Find out more about KwikSense’s work by following them on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

 

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