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CEO Focus: How Smartphones and Data Can Modernize Refugee Resettlement

In the first of a series of interviews with private sector leaders who pledged to help address the refugee crisis, we speak to Matthew Bauer, CEO of Sparrow Mobile, which provides refugees with smartphones and apps designed to ease their integration into the U.S.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Syria coming to america
Hussam Alroustom, center, poses for a cellphone photo for his daughter Maaesa as his wife, Suha, left, looks on in their apartment in Jersey City, Sept. 16, 2015. AP/Julio Cortez

The United States currently resettles more refugees than any other country in the world, and an American mobile company wants to help make the process more efficient and successful.

Sparrow, a California-based national mobile carrier, is one of 51 companies that pledged to do their part to ease the global refugee crisis in response to President Barack Obama’s call to action to the private sector earlier this year.

The company, launched in 2014, uses the buy-one-give-one model: For every new customer, Sparrow donates a phone or mobile services to people in need, such as those experiencing poverty or homelessness.

In May, Sparrow started its RefugeeMobile program, providing newly arrived refugees with a smartphone preloaded with apps for services like banking, translation and job searching, as well as six months of call, text and data services.

The goal is to make refugee integration cheaper and easier. Data from the RefugeeMobile pilot program in Texas is being analyzed by a team from the University of Notre Dame, who will track its impact on refugees’ social and economic integration.

In response to Obama’s call to action, Sparrow has pledged to expand its program beyond Texas and distribute smartphones to 1,000 families by the end of next year.

As part of our interview series with private sector leaders engaging in the refugee crisis, Refugees Deeply spoke to Sparrow’s CEO and co-founder Matthew Bauer about what his company has learned from the program so far.

Refugees Deeply: Could you describe a moment that convinced you the company should play a role in addressing the refugee crisis?

Matthew Bauer: Our reason for being is to do things like this – impact and profit are woven together for us 100 percent. We had a conversation with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and it became very apparent that a lot of our theories of change mashed up. They brought in one of their partners, Refugee Services of Texas (RST), and then we collaborated applying for funding and received a discovery grant from the MacArthur Foundation. That all happened very quickly, probably in the span of five months. Then we added the University of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) who are doing the measurement and evaluation of the pilot. We all worked on program design and measuring outcomes, leading up to the launch in May.

Refugees Deeply: How did you decide what would be the most useful and efficient role for the company to play?

Bauer: When someone is resettled in the U.S., they begin this very tight journey, in which the next six to nine months are critical to integration. But it’s a very antiquated system – it’s a paper chase, it’s hard to get hold of people, and banking is still done with checks, for example.

Instead of this random environment, we decided to use mobile technology to speed their integration. We came up with a set of apps, mobile plans that gave people enough data to use them and modern devices to run them on, including some devices donated by Google. Refugees get their phone the day they arrive, and in the future we want to provide a phone even before get to the U.S., programmed with tutorials and videos and the setup of what they’re going to need. Then, the second they arrive in Dallas-Fort Worth or JFK airport they turn on the phone and it works and it hits our network and their calendar is all there with their caseworker appointments. All this stuff is already out there – things we take for granted like Google calendar, language apps, banking apps – it’s just not being used for refugee resettlement.

This helps agencies providing services to refugees work more easily with their clients, and give their clients information right out of the gate, instead of having a lot of paperwork to deal with. So then, as a newly settled refugee, I can really focus on getting a job, and getting a higher paying job. This kind of system lowers the time you’re spending doing all the menial stuff because that’s been automated, and the case worker and the client can focus on getting integrated into the local community faster, and getting a higher paying job, and speeding integration, both short and long term.

The refugee resettlement system is being tested, and has to do more with less. This is a way to increase the quality, make it much more efficient and lower the cost per individual while increasing the attention they get. The system still works as it did 40 years ago, so we’re essentially trying to modernize the system.

Refugees Deeply: What have you already done, and what are your plans for the next year?

Bauer: We have deployed to about a hundred families so far in Houston, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth. We want to finish the pilot in Texas and expand further – Texas is the largest refugee resettlement state in the country, ironically. And we also want to deploy to another region of the U.S., possibly New York, California or the D.C. area, and then eventually make it system-wide, so that it’s part of the resettlement program.

Refugees Deeply: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far? What have you learned about the risks and opportunities that companies may face in addressing the refugee crisis?

Bauer: There have been a lot of little lessons learned. We’ve had a few technical challenges, a few apps that haven’t worked quite perfectly. We didn’t foresee the lumpiness of where refugees are resettled. The plan was to have more refugee families in our pilot, but it’s not like a well-honed market where refugees come in at a certain pace and at a certain place. Even so, the pilot program was still a large enough sample to do a full randomized control trial.

We also learned that programs have to be holistic. You can’t just toss an app or a few devices out there. There are a million different apps and other services that people have developed to help refugees, but it doesn’t help if refugees don’t have a device, or one that works, or if they’re on a crappy network that doesn’t work, or the right environment on their phone, or they don’t understand how to use it. They need a good device, a great network, a package that gives them the data they need, and then a phone with specific apps there.

We’ve also got to put big data behind this to learn what’s working and what’s not working, for example, by applying the data gathered on our pilot program by LEO. That’s something that’s not informing policy and funding right now, and mobile can help.

One thing we’ve learned working in refugee resettlement is that what’s happening on the ground is totally different to what’s being said at the political level. This topic became a four-letter word over the last year because of the U.S. presidential campaign. Yet, there’s an incredible outpouring of support for refugees settling into the country in the communities where they are. In Texas, which paints itself as a very loose state, RST has thousands and thousands of volunteers that donate furniture, get apartments ready and pick people up at the airport.

We were one of the 20 companies recently selected to come to the U.N. and meet President Obama as part of the White House’s call to action, which has been incredible. [Chobani CEO Hamdi] Ulukaya has been out front taking all the arrows on this issue, now there’s Mastercard, TripAdvisor, IBM, Sparrow, all these great companies putting commitments down. Obama asked all of us to go out and get our customers involved in this. We’re ready to scale our company and we will engage our customers in these topics. When they join the network our customers choose an impact area, like refugees or homeless, and will then get updates on where the donation is going and stories from the field.

Refugees Deeply: How will you measure the success of the initiative?

Bauer: One of our leading indicators is not just getting a job, but the level of job people are getting, in terms of pay level. Other indicators are measuring quality of life, like the speed of integration, the speed at which they’re able to learn the languages, the number of contacts and the reliability of contacts with RST and the case worker, whether that relationship was more efficient, were they able to spend more time with them instead of the administrivia. Then we’re able to aggregate what apps people are using and what impact they had. So that’s pretty cool, getting that level of data. We’re going to publish a report at the end of this with all the data in the fall of next year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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