Singaporean's team creates winning app for refugees

Ms Rushika Shekhar (second from right) and her team members (from left), Ms Lucy Obus, Mr Yanchen Wang, Mr Jake Glass and Ms Roisin McLoughlin at the VHacks hackathon in Vatican City. The team won with its credibility-scoring app that allows refugees
Ms Rushika Shekhar (second from right) and her team members (from left), Ms Lucy Obus, Mr Yanchen Wang, Mr Jake Glass and Ms Roisin McLoughlin at the VHacks hackathon in Vatican City. The team won with its credibility-scoring app that allows refugees in host countries to gain access to services like housing.PHOTO: HARSHPAL SINGH BHIRTH, MAJOR LEAGUE HACKING

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 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, 27, and her four teammates from Georgetown University in Washington, the tool could help refugees with high scores to obtain leases for long-term housing that landlords would otherwise be reluctant to grant.

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

The group then worked under the guidance of their mentor, Mr Gege Gatt, CEO of tech start-up Ebo, to create the app.

Ms Shekhar took charge of the design aspect of the app. Within days, the team created the 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 came up with technological innovations to address global problems.

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

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

Before 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 health workers. For instance, the app provides illiterate midwives with audio-visual aids to help them in their work.

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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2018, with the headline 'S'porean's team creates winning app for refugees'. Print Edition | Subscribe