We have engineers, we have infrastructure, we have financial means and if we actually use these resources to come up with meaningful ways of improving lives, then we should not let that opportunity go.
Connectivity for Refugees is a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) initiative that focuses on enhancing access to mobile and internet connectivity, both for refugees and for the communities that host them. Turkey’s biggest Mobile Network Operator (MNO) CEO, Kaan Terzioğlu, explains how technology can enhance lives.
The UN Refugee agency reports that the number of displaced people is at its highest ever — surpassing even post-World War II. Turkey is the largest host country of registered refugees with over 3 million Syrian refugees. Such a mass exodus of people through a highly-connected environment has spawned a modern migration of sorts, one in which technologies like smartphones and the internet have proven to be lifesaving and transformative tools for refugees and humanitarian groups alike.
As the largest MNO in Turkey, Turkcell has been at the forefront of the national response to the influx of over 3 million refugees from Syria. Turkcell’s CEO Kaan Terzioğlu explains why helping refugees is not just important to him personally, but also good for the company.
Refugees connecting life with their smartphones
As a member of a migrant family, Mr. Terzioğlu believes that communication providers have a key role to play in this refugee crisis. He underlines the importance of connectivity with the following words, “When people leave their country, the smartphone is not a sign of richness. It’s the only thing that connects them to the people left behind, or the way they communicate with people in a new country. Smartphones, Wi-Fi hotspots and other technologies help refugees communicate, find information and stay safe. That’s why we decided to increase our investments in the border region. This meant more base stations, more fiber, making sure we have the proper plans so they could have access to a phone and to a certain extent of Internet and voice service.”
“The number of cell towers serving the camps on the five border cities installed in the last four years is equivalent to the entire number of towers serving a city like Mardin (population 750,000) over our 22-year history. We have also provided a call center service, the first one in Turkey, to support these people in an effective way. And all that is why we have more than 1.4 million Syrian customers in Turkey using our service.”
The need to create human-enhancing technologies
Mr. Terzioğlu believes that we can shape technologies for the good of people. He continues, “There is really a dilemma because on one side we talk about virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and then we talk about unmanned ware houses, unmanned factories, driverless cars, driverless trucks but actually these technologies if used in a socially innovative way, can create human enhancing skills. Imagine these technologies not creating a driverless truck but helping a blind person, a deaf person, a disabled person or a refugee to have a better life. We have to focus on this part and make a difference. There will also be a new way of creating value and that is actually where operator like us has to be first in trying and trying and demonstrating different results.”
“Technology companies like us use augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and these tools are not just for wealthy kids to play games with. They can mean something and can create value for people in need of help. This type of knowledge sharing is critical. I wish we had more exposure to certain problems that the UN is experiencing in other parts of the world — we could propose other solutions.”
“I can give you our example of our Hello Hope application that has been developed in order to help Syrians adapt to their new lives in Turkey easier. This application, which allows anyone whose native language is Arabic and who will be staying short or long term in Turkey, including Syrian refugee, to learn Turkish, communicate and access information — free for all. In addition to Turkish colloquial speech, voice translation, and information required for emergencies and daily life in Turkey, the application also offers easy access to the Arabic Call Center. Hello Hope application has reached more than half million downloads since its launch in September 2016 during the UN Private Sector Forum.”
“I believe operators like us are interested in looking at how to solve those issues in a more effective way. Smartphones are more powerful than a mainframe computer 20 years ago — and people have it in their hands. Let’s use that. Let’s use it for something more meaningful than playing games!”
Technology to change the way we help each other
Giving refugees access to mobile technology is a way of empowering them. But this is not the only way that we can help them. Mr. Terzioğlu thinks that mobile industry has a great potential to do something good for society and ultimately to grow their business.
“It’s important to have alliances — with Government, funding partners and others organizations. Collectively, we have a responsibility to think about creating the necessary platforms to reach and connect the poor and underserved. But rather than doing simple donations for a certain cause, we have to use our resources — and we have many resources.”
“We have engineers, we have infrastructure, we have financial means and if we actually use these resources to come up with meaningful ways of improving lives, then we should not let that opportunity go. We should have a plan for that. It’s also a Research and Development project for all of our operations. At Turkcell, we are planning to launch a prepaid card, linked to your phone, pre-loaded with cash from retail outlets. You can also send money to refugees and I think we should involve food organizations in this process because I know they are also looking for solutions to respond to the challenges of distributing money and coupon or vouchers. This is a perfect platform.”