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70 million Worldwide Are Displaced. Can Smartphones Help Them Get Home?

  • Viewpoint
  • By Yuliya Panfil (New America)
  • 3 March 2020

How data trails could help reunite individuals with their homes and land

Global displacement is at an all-time high. More than 70 million people around the world have been forced from their homes by wars, weather disasters, and other events.

Depressing as this statistic is, it’s another figure that renders a decisive blow to recovery efforts. An estimated 54% of the world’s population lacks a property title, deed, rental contract, or any other documentary proof for their most valuable assets: their homes and their land.

The result? Tens of millions of displaced people are left stranded, unable to prove that they owned or even lived in the homes they fled. Unable to prove this basic fact, families struggle to get back into their homes after a conflict, or to receive money to rebuild their homes post-disaster.

Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in 2018, provides a salient example. After the storm, 60% of FEMA housing aid claims were denied; a primary reason was that claimants could not prove they owned their homes. In Yemen, an inability to return land confiscated during the 1994 war is a major contributor both to the Arab Spring and to the country’s ongoing war. In Colombia, millions cannot return to homes taken by the FARC, because they cannot prove they had once occupied those homes.

But all that may be changing.

Global smartphone penetration is at 41% and rising; our lives are becoming increasingly digitized. When we use services like Google Maps, Facebook, MPesa, and Uber, we generate evidence of where we go, what we purchase, and whom we interact with. And, crucially, start to accumulate evidence of where we live.

Anyone who has created a heat map of their Google location history has probably been amused to see a bright red spot over their home, and likely over their place of work. A simple filtering by time of day can show where we sleep at night, over the course of years.

I tested this on myself by making a heat map of my Google location history for the years 2015 and 2016. The result: a bullseye over my then-home.

Don’t believe me? Try it yourself.

Social media data is another powerful form of evidence. Tagged photographs of the home, social media posts announcing a move or a purchase of a home, or even a simple matching of images from photographs, can provide ample evidence of where someone lives.

A recent survey showed that in Erbil, Iraq, 36% of internally displaced persons use social media to actively monitor the homes and land they left behind. These IDPs use sites like Facebook to share pictures and videos of their homes, exchange information on the status of the home they left behind, and even store and transmit any existing property documents.

Rideshare services, food delivery, and e-commerce apps are uniquely helpful because they prompt users to explicitly identify the location of their home. Amazon alternatives are booming in the developing world. Asia's e-commerce market grew by 25% last year, fueled largely by India, and African e-commerce giant Jumia became the continent's first unicorn - a tech startup that reaches a $1bn dollar market value - last year.

Mobile payment histories also provide a unique and critical piece of the puzzle: they can help distinguish whether an occupant is a renter, or an owner. Similar transfers at regular intervals could be evidence of rent or mortgage payments, depending on the recipient. On the other hand, payments for major home repairs, like a new roof or a fence, are likely indicators that the payor is an owner, not a renter.

Individually, these data points don’t mean much, but collectively they create a tapestry of evidence that can be used to prove things about ourselves, including where we live.