Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new report highlights how civic smartphone technology could be a huge help to recently arrived immigrants.
When an immigrant moves to a new country, one of the first things he or she tends to buy is a mobile phone, so they can maintain their old connections and quickly make new ones.
"It's this amazing tool of transnationalism," says Meghan Benton, author of a new report by the Migration Policy Institute that highlights how smartphone technology can help immigrants settle in more quickly in their new environments.
Right now, many large cities maintain what Benton calls "one-stop shops" for recently arrived immigrants. These centers can provide language training, information about jobs, civic amenities, and services. But through her research, Benton says she was surprised to discover there's no real technological equivalent.
"There was no one-stop app," she says.
One reason for this is that instead of viewing the smartphone as a tool of convenience, she says, there's an assumption that they're only available to the wealthy.
There's some truth in that. Data plans are expensive, and while minorities are over-represented in terms of smartphone ownership, they are also over-represented in the demographic without reliable access to high-speed internet.
There's also the "digital literacy" problem—having a smartphone and data plan doesn't necessarily mean a person knows how to get the most out of the technology.
Fauzia Thara works at the Hamdard Center in Chicago—one of those "one-stop shops" for immigrants. She thinks that smartphones are definitely an untapped resource, though perhaps more for younger immigrants than older ones.
Smartphones can really help immigrants overcome language barriers, she says. Through her work, she's come across many who rely heavily on translation apps. An app that provides the same services her organization does in several native languages would be very useful, she says.
"I know people who would love that," Khara says.
Apps can also teach immigrants English on-the-go, Benton says.
City officials could also use smartphone apps to engage immigrant populations in activities such as volunteering, voting, and participating in jury duty. Smartphone access can help connect the individual to a larger network of city services, buildings, transportation, and infrastructure. And the potential upside to investing in this sort of immigrant-outreach technology is huge: cities could also use them to gather data on these populations, which could help officials make more holistic plans for the future, Benton says.
"Smart phones are just one tiny tool, but a useful and exciting one," she says.