The plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and other war-ravaged countries in the region – the majority of whom are seeking shelter across Europe – has captured the hearts and minds of many around the globe.
Among those struck by the extreme hardships confronting the refugees is a graduate student from Mobile, Ala., who had been traveling in Europe. Motivated to find a way to help, he used his background in information technology and software to help provide something in high demand but extremely scarce: information.
David Altmayer has launched the Refugee Help Map – an interactive mapping platform using Google tools that provides details on where refugees are traveling and what needs they have – to assist volunteers in best providing aid.
“At the beginning, it was just to get more information out there,” Mr. Altmayer says. “I started helping in the first place because I couldn’t just sit by and not help. And then I just tried to find ways that I could best use my skill set to help.”
Altmayer had worked in Seattle on IT and software projects, and is currently pursuing an MBA and master’s degree in global management through the Thunderbird Graduate School of Global Management and the University of Indiana, Bloomington. In order to finish his degree, he had to select a couple of courses that would be held abroad.
He took a course taught in New Delhi, India, in June 2014,and a class held this fall in Istanbul, Turkey, and decided to visit Europe in between. He spent much of his time attending hack-a-thons (intensive group software coding sessions) and startup weekends, competitions in which groups set up marketing strategies, financial forecasts, business plans, and other logistics for mock start-up companies.
That landed him in Budapest, Hungary, where he received a residence permit last year. Little did he know, his temporary country of residence would be in the cross hairs of the refugee crisis.
“I live about one kilometer [0.6 miles] from the main railway station here in Budapest,” he says, By mid-August, migrants had begun to flock to the station to take shelter. “Every day there were more and more people basically living there – camping, setting up tents, sleeping on cardboard,” he says.
Some of Altmayer’s friends had been providing support to refugees, mainly by bringing them meals. Altmayer noticed other volunteer groups were providing assistance. Wanting to learn more, he began to explore online – only to discover a need that he and his computer-literate colleagues could help to address.
“More and more people had been asking where they could get information in English,” he says. Most efforts to provide information were in Hungarian. Before he knew it, he had become part of a group that launched an English website, making details about locations and needs accessible to English-speaking refugees and volunteers.
Shortly thereafter, Altmayer hitchhiked with friends to the border between Hungary and Serbia, a location which at the time had seen Hungarian authorities using pepper spray and water cannons to repel refugees.
Returning to Budapest, he began to share information on Facebook and found that he was occupied around the clock answering questions through social media regarding where refugees were located and where the need was greatest.
“We realized that we needed to provide updates daily,” he says. “People were looking to help and wanted to volunteer.”
In the first six weeks the map was online, it received more than 80,000 views. It is constantly updated with markers indicating the location and urgency of needs, as well as comments about conditions facing refugees.
“There are so many people using it and counting on it,” Altmayer says. While he was volunteering in Dimitrovgrad, Serbia, he came upon an emergency coordinator from Doctors Without Borders who had been using the map to deploy volunteers and track needs.
Altmayer says he now is working to contact relief agencies in order to collect and share more information.
To date, he has traveled to sites in Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Hungary to provide on-site relief. And he continues to work with a team of volunteers to manage the Refugee Help Map, something he is passionate about continuing.
Referring to the refugee crisis, he says, “It was so close, and I couldn’t sit by and not do something.”
• To visit the Refugee Help Map site go to www.RefugeeMap.com.