A staggering 102 billion apps have been downloaded worldwide and downloads are expected to more than double in 2017. In just a few years, apps have revolutionised access to information and dramatically increased retail opportunities. There are easy-to-use, lightning fast smartphone apps to make payments, send messages, order taxis, find new partners or track down rare Pokémon: they are an integral part of many people’s daily routine.
The stated objective of many businesses that create apps is often to “empower people” or “change how they think about the world”. Unsurprisingly, few achieve such lofty goals. But it’s not just companies that are seeking to tap new audiences with apps. Governments and charities are using the near ubiquity of smartphones to aggregate information in new ways and deliver innovative services: some of these apps really empower users.
Perhaps the highest profile example of such an app is Ankommen, which is billed as a guide for asylum seekers’ first weeks in Germany. It leverages smartphones to make a real difference to people’s lives and give them the tools to survive what is a potentially traumatic experience. The scale of its ambition, unique vision, and success in finding a new way to reach a potentially elusive target audience could offer lessons for companies seeking to create an app.
“Last summer, there was a large influx of asylum seekers to Germany,” notes Edith Avram, press spokesperson for Germany’s Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (Federal Office for Migration and Refugees). Over 1.1 million migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, arrived in Germany during 2015 and a further 300,000 refugees are expected this year (the decline is mainly attributable to the deal between the European Union and Turkey to repatriate migrants).
“We needed to find a way to explain to these people how they could register, apply for asylum in Germany and find accommodation,” says Avram. “We realised that many of them owned smartphones, which they used to keep in contact with their families and navigate across Europe. It seemed obvious to help them using technology.” The result was Ankommen, a groundbreaking app which helps newly arrived refugees integrate into Germany.
What most impresses about Ankommen is the breadth of content. “We wanted to bring together a wide range of information, which was previously scattered across multiple websites, so that people could adapt to life in Germany quicker and fit in more easily,” explains Avram. The app contains not only advice on the asylum procedure and how to find a job or apprenticeship. It also addresses life in Germany – answering questions about equal rights, democracy and where to buy food, for example – and offers an online language course.
To create the app, a number of institutions had to work closely together. Ankommen is a joint project of the Bundesagentur für Arbeit (Federal Employment Agency), the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, the Goethe Institute (Germany’s cultural institution), and Bayerischer Rundfunk (a public-service radio and television broadcaster).
Often within corporates it can be difficult to break down silos between business divisions: Ankommen is an inspiring example of integrating diverse content from entirely separate organisations. Ankommen also offer lessons on accessibility. Content is available in five languages – German, English, French, Arabic and Farsi – is free of advertising and free of charge. “It can be used offline, which is important for refugees who are unlikely to have mobile broadband plans and rely on free Wi-Fi hotspots,” says Avram.
The app was launched at the beginning of January 2016 and an update was released in May 2016 – another is on the way. “So far, over 180.000 people have downloaded the app,” says Avram. ”Although we cannot verify that they are all asylum seekers or ascertain how they use the app – Federal regulations prevent the use of tracking via the app – we believe that it has reached a sizeable proportion of new arrivals in Germany.” The app has been marketed through posters and flyers at Federal asylum offices, job centres and non-governmental organisations and through Facebook.
Given the user base, feedback on the app is understandably limited. Users on the Google Play app store rate it an average of 4.5 of out five: comments include “Such a useful application!! Shows everything in nice detail… has an awesome overlay and the content is an absolute must-have for [people] who are trying to get used to the German culture and language” and “این برنامه فوق العاده اس!” (This app is great!” in Farsi). Avram adds: “I had someone approach me at an event in Berlin who said they had found the app interesting, helpful and playful to use. And that’s exactly what we hoped for.”