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BSc Computing student writes app to help refugees

by Alex Went, on 16 May 2017 16:13:59 CEST

For the last two years, Ahmed Ebeid has been studying for his Bachelor’s degree in Computing at Prague City University. We asked him about his work for his BSc thesis.

quote-marks.pngI’ve been programming for as long as I can remember -  my first exposure to programming was in MIRC and then Visual Basic. So I always wanted to study programming at university. My original plan had been to go to the UK, but when I couldn’t get a visa, my brother’s ex-fiancee - who is Czech - recommended coming to Prague. After a terrible first semester at another university, I discovered Prague College. I had an interview with the head of the School of Computing, and went from there. I always hated maths, but in the first semester alone she taught us mathematical logic and now I not only understand, but actively enjoy it!

I understand that your thesis is based on a web app that you developed to assist volunteer groups in Germany. What gave you the idea for this particular project?

When I went to live in Kempten, Germany, I met up with a young number of volunteers who were assisting refugees with their requests for governmental help. Because I didn’t speak German, it was difficult to find ways to be of use, so initially I helped by translating from Arabic to English (someone else then translated to German).  There are many camps in Germany and when refugees arrive they have to wait until their acceptance papers come - which can be a few months to a year.

After a while, a problem began to emerge. Since each volunteer was responsible for a specific camp - sometimes multiple camps - there could be confusion when refugees ended up calling many different people to ask for the same thing. Sometimes four or five volunteers would end up following up a request without knowing that other volunteers were doing it already.

So the app was designed to allow a degree of horizontal matching and sharing of information within the volunteer community.

Yes, part of the rationale for the app was to assist newcomers to the volunteer community, who were finding some problems in knowing what to do. And this is where the app can help by assigning tasks to each person. So if refugees have to register for a German course they can be assigned to a specific volunteer, for example.

What were the biggest challenges in development?

Without a doubt, the greatest challenge was data privacy, which is always very complicated and strict, particularly in Germany. There needed to be some way that volunteers could share a common database, but crucially with restrictions on which volunteer had access to which data. For example, a volunteer from one camp should not be able to see data from another camp.

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Did you have to take specific legal advice?

In the earlier version of the application, refugees themselves were allowed access in order to add family details, though that was something I removed in later iterations. But there was one legal aspect that we came to learn later: that any data, even when uploaded by volunteers, required the express permission of the refugees themselves. All of this meant that the security aspect became my real focus in developing this project, and knowing about German privacy law ended up being central to my thesis.

Can you tell us something about the timeline for the project and some of its technical data?

Sure. It's a web-app with restricted access built in node.js bound to a MySQL database, with a front end in JavaScript. I started developing the app in June 2016, and although the first protoype was ready after a month, testing (by me and some of the volunteers) took five to six months, after which we were ready to deploy it in the real world. The JSON file is able to be translated into any language, but documentation for the moment is only in English and German.

It's already being used in two cities in Germany and several camps. Even though I appreciate there's no commercial focus, what are your hopes for the future of the app?

Whether it ends up being used by one or two groups, or a hundred, I don't mind.  As long as it helps people. I'm not a marketing guy, but if volunteer groups from any country look at it and say 'That could help me', then of course I'd be more than happy to assist.


Topics:School of Media & ITResearch & Creative PracticeGlobal Engagement