Singaporean part of winning team at Vatican Hackathon that designed app for refugees

Singaporean Rushika Shekhar (second from left) and her four team mates created tools to help refugees with high scores obtain leases for long-term housing that landlords would otherwise be reluctant to grant.
Singaporean Rushika Shekhar (second from left) and her four team mates created tools to help refugees with high scores obtain leases for long-term housing that landlords would otherwise be reluctant to grant.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/GEGE GATT

SINGAPORE - Some refugees, despite being able to earn basic income and afford rent in their host countries, often find it hard to obtain leases for long-term housing due to their perceived lack of financial credibility.

But they could soon get some help - in the form of a mobile website and application that records their employment and income, as well as payment history which shows whether they are a lending risk due to past missed payments.

Based on this, the app then generates a score that indicates their level of financial credibility.

Created by Singaporean Rushika Shekhar and her four team mates, the tools could help refugees with high scores to obtain leases for long-term housing that landlords would otherwise be reluctant to grant.

Ms Shekhar, 27, and her team mates from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. first found out the severity of the problem after interacting with refugees at a church in Vatican City.

"We realised that many potential landlords had negative views on refugees, even if they were perfectly able to afford housing," said Ms Shekhar, who is studying for a masters degree in international development at Georgetown University.

The group then worked under the guidance of their mentor Gege Gatt, CEO of tech start-up Ebo, to create the mobile tools that will put refugees on a level playing field with others looking for long-term housing.

Ms Shekhar took charge of the design aspect of the app. Within days, the team created the mobile website and app named Credit/Ability.

The project beat eight other entries in the Migrants and Refugees category of VHacks, a first-of-its-kind hackathon with a focus on global affairs.

Held in Vatican City from March 8 to 11, the event brought together teams from universities worldwide which created computer software to address global problems.

Since winning the competition, various large technology corporations have approached the team, expressing interest in implementing the app in real life. The team is currently looking into how they can work with these companies to make the app a reality.

This is not the first time Ms Shekhar, who is an alumni of the Singapore American School, has leveraged technology for social development.

Prior to her enrolment in graduate school, she spent some time in developing countries such as India and Myanmar where she helped develop an app to aid struggling health workers there. For instance, the app provided illiterate midwives with audio-visual aids to help them in their work.

And she has this advice for others who are developing something new.

"Having the question of what its purpose is and how... it can be used for social good at the back of their mind is so important," said Ms Shekhar, who hopes to work in the field of social development.

"Technology can be an enabler, but it cannot just be a solution. We need to look at it through the lens of social development."