Interview with Shelley Taylor, Creator of The RefAid Mobile App That Helps Millions of Refugees in Europe.
Migrating from an Offline to an Online Base.
Seven years ago, when I started my journey in the professional world of product design and user experience, one of the main goals I set out was to uncover the migration of data.
I’ve worked at an immigration law firm for over eight years, prior to being a product designer and UX Researcher.
I’m fascinated by a world that can migrate offline paper-based systems to the digitization of existing physical content.
The passion for efficiency and digital transformation isn’t quite a unique feature of software developers or to design thinkers.
I thought of this piece to relate our current affairs on data. The following is an excerpt from the book by Alec Ross: The Industries of the Future. On Chapter: Data: The Raw Material Of the Information Age – Data is the raw material of the information age.
“ Private companies now collect and sell as many as 75,000 individual data points about the average American consumer. And that number is tiny compared with what’s to come.
The explosion in data creation is a very recent occurrence and from its inception, data storage has grown exponentially. For millennia, record keeping meant clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, or parchment and vellum made from animal skin. The first modern paper, made from wood or glass pulp, was a big advance; but the first major milestone in mass production of data came with the invention of the printing press. In the first 50 years after the first printing press appeared, 8 million books were printed–more than all the books produced by European scribes in the prior millennium.
With the successive inventions of telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and computers, the amount of data in the world grew rapidly during the 20th century. By 1996, there was so much data and computing had gotten sufficiently inexpensive that digital storage became more cost-effective than paper systems for the first time.
As recently as 2000, only 25 percent of data was stored in digital form. Less than a decade later, in 2007, that percentage had skyrocketed to 94 percent. And it has continued to rise since.
Digitization dialed up the possibilities for data collection in a remarkable way. Ninety percent of the world’s digital data has been generated over the last two years. Every year, the amount of digital data grows by 50 percent. Every minute of the day, 204 million emails are sent, 2.4 million pieces of content are posted on Youtube, and 216,000new photos are posted to Instagram. Industrial films are embedding sensors into their producers to better manage their supply chains and logistics. The sum of all this is the creation of 5.6 zettabytes in 2015. A zettabyte is 1 trillion gigabytes.” pages 153, 154.
The piece above made me correlate the situation of a normal person using the internet versus a person who just lost their land, their home and civil life, and possibly have lost their families.
These are the refugees from Syria desperately arriving to the shores of Europe with some only carrying mobile phones in their pockets.
The REFAID App
In our interview today, we’re chatting with Shelley Taylor, an influential figure who built a career on migrating offline processes to numerous online data accounts.
Shelley Taylor found her true calling after she saw the picture in newspapers of the little boy who drowned in 2015 along with many others who were washed up on the shores of Greece and Italy during the refugee crisis coming from Syria.
Taylor is a world expert on data, an experienced entrepreneur, and a technology researcher who has provided the industry with hundreds of studies on user experience and customer journey mappings for e-commerce platforms, with the main goal of uncovering online customer shopping behaviors.
Her latest invention is a mobile application for refugees called RefAid App, that provides service information for refugees across humanitarian aid-organizations in Europe.
Meet Shelley Taylor
Taylor is focusing on a major digitization reform which is a crucial task not many humanitarians are doing.
I had the pleasure of chatting with one of the most influential women in our technology world, Shelley Taylor, is dedicating her life to saving millions of humans in the European refugee crisis everyday.
Taylor’s journey prior to the technology world started in the financial services. She previously held titles of a fund manager, a venture capitalist, a product owner, along with many other roles.
During our meeting, we talked about her journey highlights and motivations behind building an application with the main goal of serving refugees in Europe. We discussed the product design experience and development of the RefAid App, and the discoveries made throughout the process in regards to how service providers can work better together to digitize information that is accessible and universal to any human who needs help or requires services.
Originally from Palo Alto, Shelley Taylor became the world’s expert on annual financial reports during the early 1990’s. She’s created most of the terminology we use today when interacting with user interface (UI) design in the e-commerce industry. Her role was to digitize annual financial reports for corporations, this gave Shelley Taylor room to become one of the top global technology experts in the world. Taylor founded her production company that provided valuable services for entertainment companies in protecting content rights and distribution for producers and musicians.
Taylor provided business development solutions to Silicon Valley companies, serving as an advisor to global 2000 companies, including Dell, Microsoft, AOL, and Amazon.
Then, Shelley moved from the United States to the United Kingdom around 1996, to build her research-based technology firm, InfoFarm, and publishing her book Click-Here Commerce.
Taylor’s incredible career trajectory has allowed her to produce numerous studies on the state of websites, suggesting the type of customer experience that should be available on websites.
After several decades in research and technology, Shelley Taylor is now dedicating her life to fixing a global humanitarian crisis.
Realizing The True Mission: To Digitize the Service Information For Service Providers.
Shelley Taylor has a goal that includes making life easier for European migrants by connecting users to agents who work at non-profit and affiliated-organizations that are servicing the refugee communities in Europe.
Taylor built an application with her small team, out of pocket, that affiliates the European refugee community with non-profit and non-government humanitarian agencies across Europe.
The unique feature of the product is a dashboard that connects all required human services, displaying different view modes on the platform based on the end user. The end user could be a refugee looking for a warm meal, or the end user could be an agent posting an ad for free English courses, the end user could also be a civilian wanting to offer his/her volunteering services and they go on the platform and find who needs help today.
The European Migrant Crisis
A term given to a period in 2013 when rising numbers of people arrived in the European Union from across the Mediterranean Sea or overland through Southeast Europe.
Between 2010 and 2013, around 1.4 million non-EU nationals, excluding asylum seekers and refugees arrived in the EU each year, with a slight decrease after 2010 According to the UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide during the refugee crisis reached 59.5 million at the end of 2014.
Of the migrants arriving in Europe by sea in 2015, 58% were males over 18 years of age (77% of adults), 17% were females over 18 (22% of adults) and the remaining 25% were under 18. The number of deaths at sea rose to record levels in April 2015, when five boats carrying almost 2,000 migrants to Europe sank in the Mediterranean Sea, with a combined death toll estimated at more than 1,200 people. The shipwrecks took place in a context of ongoing conflicts and refugee crises in several Asian and African countries, which increased the total number of forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2014 to almost 60 million, the highest level since World War II.
Taylor Explains on our call:
“But it was when I saw the little baby on the beach island, I just got gut-punched, I thought, I just got to do something, and I was reading the articles about how everyone had their phones and I thought you know here I am, I had this great technology that makes it possible to make apps like in an hour, you know, so why don’t I make an app that allows the refugees to see the services that are nearest to them, provided by the service providers.”
RefAid collects data for the end user who is a refugee so they can find the most urgent services nearest to them. In addition, RefAid connects to almost every social organization in Europe that provides services to refugees who are new residents in Europe. Shelley Taylor is bringing refugees together through the platform she built to list organizations and provide services to refugees.
It’s 2019, and most systems in humanitarian organizations are not digitized and information remains physical, on a piece of paper, located in someone’s desk drawer.
So over the weekend, we spun up the RefAid application, and I thought ok there you go, it’s going to be super easy because everybody who we talked to from the service providers, all thought that was a great idea. But then, it came to getting them to give us their list of services…
Digitize service information online to service providers from paper-based
It turned out, service providers didn’t have a list of services. A shock that came to Taylor was the lack of database of listed services. Even the biggest organizations don’t have any forms of documentation online.
It took the RefAid team ten weeks to collect lists from service providers. The surprise was when she asked why it took so long, most teams at mentioned organizations responded that they had to call every office and ask for the lists over the phone which is how she got her hands on the first list of three hundred service providers. Taylor jokingly adds that she could’ve walked across the U.K. to collect the data in that amount of time.
To Shelley’s realization, the app she promptly built during the weekend with her team was not the main problem that she was trying to solve, it was on the service organizations to provide her with lists so she can migrate this information online. Taylor was trying to solve one problem which evolved into a different and more complex issue.
In order for the service information to go online and on the app, Shelley realized that service organizations did not have an existing database system. To her surprise, she had to manually call organizations asking them for their list of services. It took the service providers 10 weeks to get back to her! 10 weeks!
It will be three years in February 2019, RefAid services are now available in 23 countries and about 3000 organizations are registered on the platform. There is potential for growth in adding more organizations to the platform, except that it takes a while before a person puts their services into a list that they can upload online.
We all need help sometimes at some point. We might have a kid who has a disability who needs transport, but what if the car is in the shop and we need services providers to have access to our needs. My goal is to map the whole world in community services in which RefAid app is just a small part.
Late responses from the organizations were not due to lack of interest in her product or the advanced platform she had to offer, the reason was simply that these service providers did not have an online list that they can upload and send to Shelley.
The agents had to call other offices across Europe and hand-write the lists she was looking for to upload to her dashboard. She explains on the call:
The RefAid App User Experience
When the user checks the app, they can get help they need from the nearest services as quickly as possible. The app primarily uses geo-locations to map out the closest available services for refugees.
The RefAid mobile app connects refugees who’ve arrived at the shores of Italy, Greece or through France, just thankful to be alive and are seeking the most important human services.
RefAid app connects the person to the appropriate Non-Government Organization with aid organizations. The app serves refugees and are digital users who can sign on, and navigate their way in finding humanitarian services in Europe. These people are not only displaced, they mostly have no sense of feeling assimilated to this new place, and are surely traumatized. These individuals take time to settle and cope post-trauma, as they are in dire need of human services like shelter, food, water, a warm shower, physician consultation, and legal services.
Among the top search results on the app are services like warm meals and medical attention.
Stakeholder Buy-in and Fast Recruiting to Use The Dashboard
Getting the green light from large organizations to put their information for free on Taylor’s platform didn’t require much convincing. Almost everyone agreed to posting the member organization’s information. The method used to onboard new teams primarily comes from word of mouth or from particular ambassador outreach.
We are looking for partner organizations as a for profit company though this is our thing that we want to do for free.
Shelley Taylor’s app RefAid was ranked number one on the iOS App Store in August 2018.
Her app is for free and she doesn’t make a profit off of, she truly is helping refugees out of pocket.
App Store Reviews
Questions I Asked During our Call
What is the difference between a refugee and an immigrant person or family in the context of Europe?
How is the RefAid app helping migrants after almost two years?
I’d like to get a little technical with the mobile development process. I'm interested in how you and your team built the connection between the aid organization and the user, who is in dire need of this service.: my question is How did you and your team build this user narrative that lead you to create a mobile app over the weekend?
What research methods do you and your team apply to increase user engagement?
Tell us a little about your main platform Trellyz that sprouted other services. How did you see a niche to build a location based mobile application that helps serve the refugee crisis in Europe and mainly connects governments with society at critical times?
Our final question for you today is what would you like to say to our audience listening from the United States and other countries around the world, about RefAid app and how to place empathy at the core of our narrative?
Please stay tuned for the audio version that will be uploaded to the podcast.
I truly appreciated this wonderful conversation and hope to see the RefAid app grow and serve all the global citizens of the world. Thank you for your time.