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MSIM students build platform to connect refugees with mentors during hackathon

In a 24-hour hackathon focused on using technology for international development, two MSIM students and their teammates built a platform for the nonprofit, Konexio, that connects refugees in France with mentors worldwide.

Technology is increasingly being used to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Rahul Chavan and Zach Zager, both students in the M.S. in Innovation & Management program, recently placed second in the Tufts IDHack for addressing a growing global crisis: refugees. Chavan and Zager developed a digital platform that connects refugees in France with mentors worldwide.

The annual hackathon, hosted by Tufts University CS Exchange and Harvard College Developers for Development from February 9 to 10, brought in nonprofits that are seeking solutions to various technology problems they face. They tasked the students with coming up with an innovative solution in a mere 24 hours.

Beginning on a Friday evening, Zach, Rahul, and students from universities across the greater Boston area met with the organizations and then had a chance to find potential teammates with complementary skills. Zach and Rahul joined forces with Isabelle Nguyen-Phuoc, a UX designer and junior at Boston University, and Martin Lotchev, a senior mechanical engineering student from Tufts.

The team decided to work with Konexio, an organization based in France that connects refugees from all over the world with professional opportunities like computer literacy and coding skills. Konexio needed a way to match their incoming refugees with mentors who would help them integrate into French society.

“Konexio wanted to be able to provide these refugees with a connection in society – because a lot of them end up living in communities where everyone is a refugee,” says Zach. “It’s really hard to get your footing in a new country if you are with people who aren’t speaking French and also have limited resources.”

Zach and Rahul said the MSIM program, especially the Innovation Sprints, prepared them to work towards a solution with the macro view in mind. While other teams focused on creating the most technically-advanced solution, they instead focused on creating the solution that would best meet the needs of the end user.

“We tackled the problem the same way we would in our MSIM program,” Rahul says. “We spent a considerable chunk of our 14 hours in that room on defining the problem in the ideation phase.”

Working throughout the night, the team came up with a simple technology solution. The platform, to be accessed on a computer at the organization since many refugees don’t have computers at home, shows refuges potential mentor matches, then allows them to send invitations to take the connection offline. The platform asks questions that help foster a friendly connection – such as favorite soccer team.

“We put the power of connecting in the refugee’s hands, and the power of accepting that invitation in the mentor’s hand,” Rahul says.

The team’s emphasis on understanding the problem and being able to tailor a solution is what ultimately made them stand out to the judges. For example, they also decided to add a message board function to the platform after realizing that refugees are looking for a sense of community as well as a personal mentor. There, refugees can connect with other refugees anywhere in the world who are having similar problems.

“I think it was our focus on the end user and being very meticulous about understanding their needs that helped us stand out,” Zach says.

The MSIM experience also helped Zach and Rahul comfortably step into project management roles, work on an interdisciplinary team, and leverage insights from people outside of STEM fields.

“As an engineering psychology major, I’ve been deeply engrained in the technical aspects of a solution, but learning how to factor in product usability has been very helpful,” Zach says. “The MSIM program teaches us to look at the big picture of any problem.”

Moving forward, Konexio plans to take what the team developed to researchers at Stanford who are going to build it out.

“My advice to anyone engaging in a hackathon or other project like this is to really be solution-focused, as opposed to just technology-focused,” Zach says.