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Technology, identity, and refugees: An interview with Hannes Gassert

Recently, our CEO Joshua Goldstein sat down with Hannes Gassert, a Swiss civic entrepreneur who believes that business and government are inextricable. Gassert rejects the idea that business motivations and the greater good should stand diametrically opposed.

Simple, right?

In the United States, we don’t need to look any further than our current political climate to see what happens when this goes horribly wrong. In Switzerland, however, a direct democracy in which you can call a referendum on any topic with only 100,000 signatures, the picture looks more hopeful.

With such a direct line into the legislative process, shouldn’t citizens be more connected, more able to leverage their influence onto governmental processes? And shouldn’t government run more efficiently than in does in the US?

In his conversation with Goldstein, Gassert challenged these assumptions. He pointed to the lack of truly open, usable data and the lack of a cohesive feedback loop to facilitate real communication within his own country.

Indeed, this lack of communication is one of the largest challenges facing government, not just in Switzerland.

With stark lines drawn between government and citizens, there simply isn’t an easy way to move vital information to the people and projects that need it most, usually until disaster strikes.

Too often we try to bridge the divide when the mess is already too big.

One example of this intersection is a recent project to digitize signature collection for referendum petitions. Gassert’s company, WeCollect, spearheaded this project in an attempt to make this form of government interaction more accessible. Unfortunately, it fell flat.

As with nearly every government-public interface, the referendum process is guided by endless statutes and requirements. Like nearly every process within the government, one of those requirements is a standardized form, which, like nearly every government form, requires an original signature.

In Switzerland, as in the US, electronic signatures are legally acceptable, but they’re governed under a strict set of regulations. This means that, while acceptable in theory, electronic signatures are still an obstacle to digitizing most government forms.

For now, resistance to electronic signatures and the preference for paper forms has proven too strong, too extensive to make room for WeCollect’s civic tech innovation.

This struggle over electronic signatures might shock any American who’s ever purchased a house, signed their life away for a student loan, or even clicked “I agree” on a user agreement they didn’t read. However, most governmental processes in the US still end with a signature on a paper form.

Really, this problem isn’t so foreign.

A world away, the same problem plagues people in a far more dire situation.

Refugees are pouring into Europe, in part, because of a form. When local embassies close their doors or stop accepting asylum applications, those who seek refuge from the Syrian Civil War are often forced to migrate, in hopes that they might apply for asylum at the border of a safer country.

Recently, Gassert worked on an effort to digitize asylum applications, a project that would literally have saved lives but was doomed to fail, entangled in bureaucracy and overlapping jurisdictions.

The problem, Gassert says, is rather simple: Asking someone in a war-torn country to fill out a hard-copy asylum application is tone-deaf and unrealistic, especially when embassies are already shuttered.

The only alternative that remains for refugees is a harrowing journey to a foreign border with the hope that the country will accept their application.

Gassert says this demand is not only unfair, but also a burden that weighs disproportionately on women and children. “On that journey, of course the young men are going to make it,” he says. “[Meanwhile, women and children are left] in the hands of human traffickers.”

“So why can’t they fill in that form where they are?” he asked. And so began an experiment to bring this system online.

As with most examples of the public-government interface, there are a lot of moving parts, a lot of stakeholders, involved in processing asylum applications. If the application intake were to occur online, the system would need to verify applicant identities remotely, treat applications fairly, ensure that applicants have safe passage to their place of refuge, and finally, match applications to the correct applicant upon arrival.

Ultimately, this complexity killed the project, but still Gassert insists, “It’s not rocket science.”

At its core, the Syrian refugee crisis is a human problem, not one for technology to solve. Really, the problem is simple: Too many people, all moving unsystematically, and no one willing to revise the system or framework for processing this movement.

If we’re to believe Gassert, technology can’t solve these problems. Or, at least, technology alone can’t solve them.

“Technology is not the solution, but it needs to contribute,” he says. “There is no way that we can go back to saying, ‘Yeah, do what you want out there, just leave the Internet alone.’ We need to make contributions.”

Gassert insists that this problem is too big for the tech community to ignore, too big to stand by and allow the current, ineffective processes to bungle everything: “[With] our generation, our social context, we have the means. We’re responsible for that kid drowning on the shore in Greece.”

As Gassert sees it, immigration is a historic peace project for Europe, one that begs the question: “What does it actually mean to be a national citizen of Germany, France, [or] Switzerland?”

Sure, technology might not answer this question for us, but it might save some lives while we try.

Becca is the marketing lead at The Department of Better Technology.

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