Refugees and vulnerable populations must be able to access lifesaving information about health and safety—especially today as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the globe. These communities are already vulnerable to conflict, displaced from their homes, and lacking necessary resources. They must be able to easily find timely, high-quality information that they can trust.

Signpost, an information and engagement project by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and partners like Mercy Corps, Google, Microsoft, Twilio, Cisco, Trip Advisor and Box, uses social media and digital platforms to get critical information to those affected by crisis.

“We meet people where they are—digitally—in a way that recognizes their needs and personal circumstances, and deliver contextualized information based on the unique and specific problems that they and their communities are facing,” says Signpost director Andre Heller.

Parents and their two young children in their corrugated iron shelter in Moria refugee camp, Greece
Lesbos, Greece: Signpost created an app to help refugees arriving in Greece find lodging, transportation, and medical services.
Photo: Milos Bicanski/IRC

Signpost's contextualized and responsive approach to information services is informed by the IRC's work in protection and human rights, Heller explains. "It's an approach that has been lacking in general, but especially for those who are most vulnerable.”

Since being launched by the IRC with Mercy Corps in 2015, Signpost has reached over 1.5 million people across three continents—in their own contexts and languages. In Greece, Signpost created an app to help refugees find lodging, transportation, and medical services and went on to develop ways to help with the asylum process. In Italy, Signpost has used Facebook to reach asylum seekers with information about essential services, answer questions from users, and dispel misinformation about COVID-19. In El Salvador and Honduras, Signpost created the CuentaNos platform to connect people affected by urban violence with the information and support they need, and now also provides content about the coronavirus and where to get help.

The project’s most recent expansion is in Colombia, through a platform called InfoPalante that reaches Venezuelan refugees and other displaced and vulnerable groups. Since 2013, nearly 5 million Venezuelans who endured poverty and instability in their country have sought safety in Colombia. As Meghan Lopez, IRC regional director for Latin America, points out, these newcomers need trustworthy guidance: “Once Venezuelans arrive in Colombia, they lack information about where to go, how to find work, what services are available to them, even where to live safely,” she says.

We flip the paradigm of information services through Signpost—we start with the people we aim to help, rather than “our” messages.

“We’re shifting the power, which is normally held by service providers themselves, back to people affected by crisis,” says Heller. “We flip the paradigm of information services through Signpost—we start with the people we aim to help, rather than “our” messages.  It’s a whole new approach towards treating people with the dignity and respect that they deserve, and recognizing their own agency in navigating their way through difficult situations.”

Now, Signpost is developing new strategies in an effort to reach vulnerable people on the move with information about the coronavirus and its broader impact on services they seek.

A pregnant woman wearing a mask waits outside an IRC clinic in Cúcuta, Colombi
Cúcuta, Colombia: In addition to information on civil and legal rights, jobs, and access to healthcare, Signpost's InfoPalante will provide users with reliable information on COVID-19 preventative measures and safety guidelines.
Photo: Schneyder Mendoza

Sharing information in a time of crisis

The coronavirus is shining a light on how information is so difficult to access for many people around the world.

“Given the exhaustive amount of general information, conflicting information, and misinformation that's out there, everyone can now understand what life might be like for a population living in crisis,” says Heller. “It’s difficult to know where to turn to for specific questions about what you your family are going through. And with so many services shut down, nobody really knows what's operating or functioning at this time.”

In response to the pandemic, Signpost tailored its program in Italy to help asylum seekers understand policy changes and how to access health services.

“We were already sharing communications about how public health measures and isolation orders affected their daily lives, and updating them with policy changes that were specific to their circumstances,” says Heller. “We’ve had thousands of exchanges related to people's specific circumstances and how we can help them.”

We’ve had thousands of exchanges related to people's specific circumstances and how we can help them.

On its website, Signpost created a blog post about how the coronavirus outbreak spread in Italy and measures the government was taking to reduce transmissions. It also published a post outlining common symptoms and specific numbers to call based on location. Community moderators further guided asylum seekers on social media through the details of how the pandemic impacts their legal status, health care access, and housing and economic security programs.

Reaching people where they already are

To understand exactly what people need, Signpost conducts information needs assessments, engaging with community members and leaders.

“Through that engagement, we learn where people go for information and how they share it, as well as which existing information resources are out there,” Heller says. “We’ll then design a program that reaches people in the ways that they prefer and in the languages they speak.”

A woman in El Salvador looks at her cellphone
San Salvador, El Salvador: Signpost has reached over 1.5 million people across three continents in their own contexts and languages.
Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

In Italy, many people were using Facebook, so Signpost created a Facebook page and group to share information. In El Salvador, WhatsApp is free to use, so Signpost worked with its partner company Twilio to package online resources in a format that’s easy to distribute and navigate on WhatsApp. And in Colombia, Signpost partners with local organizations such as information service Estoy en la Frontera to continually adapt and respond to community feedback.

If there are helpful and existing resources for a certain population, Signpost finds ways to complement and network with them, not replace them. It also assembles a team of moderators from affected communities to source relevant, inclusive information tailored to people’s specific needs. 

For example, many asylum seekers in Italy were asking questions about when temporary visas were set to expire. “We triangulated the right information, and we wrote an article that explained it all in simple terms,” says Heller. “It turned out that there was actually an extension to this expiration, but it wasn’t advertised well and it was only in Italian, which many people didn’t speak.”

An aerial view of San Salvador, El Salvador and its volcano
San Salvador, El Salvador: Signpost created the CuentaNos platform to connect people affected by urban violence with information and support.
Photo: Neil Brandvold/IRC


Planning for the future

Signpost will continue to expand its offerings to reach people in crisis and is planning an October 2020 launch in Mexico, where Central Americans seeking safety in the U.S. have been stranded by Trump Administration policies. The Signpost team is also looking at new strategies to address the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“While we're aiming to solve some problems in the here and now, this pandemic will be with us for a long time to come,” says Heller. “We need to be making decisions that consider not just today’s challenges, but also how we’re going to be working a year from now and what people are going to need."

"We’re working to get ahead of the curve for our collective future.”