Empathy and empowerment for our newest neighbors

How might we...

How might we...
...enable empathy between established residents and refugees in order to foster more inclusive communities?

The Challenge

IPCC Sustainable Development Goals

As an added challenge, acknowledging the realities of our time, we were tasked with framing our problem in the context of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Empathy meets the climate crisis

We came into this project with concerns about the state of the world weighing on our minds.

At the start of this project The US was in a government shutdown over funding the border wall. Mere months prior, Pittsburgh experienced one of its worst tragedies with the Tree of Life shooting where the synagogue was targeted in part because of their pro Syrian stance. And in Europe, Brexit talks reminded us of the growing nationalism and protectionism happening across the world.

When we examined these we saw that all of these situations stemmed from a lack of empathy towards refugees and other displaced migrants.

Currently there are 65.8 million forcibly displaced migrants. Due to climate change, by 2050 there will be another 140 million at risk of being displaced.

Climate migration is a reality of our future. We sought to explore the ways in which societies adapt to an influx of migrants, and how this shift can be as positive as possible.

The Outcome

Nearby is a platform that connects newly arrived refugees to welcoming locals in their area for safe, timely assistance with everyday essentials.




How it works


Nearby, makes its first introduction to the community by reflecting the languages that are spoken by its unique members.

For the safety of the refugee community, helpers undergo an expedited background check by scanning their government IDs and inputting a few key details about themselves. Both they and refugees can customize their names and genders to better reflect their identity and privacy needs.

Each user has control over what information is shared with the other. They may opt to use a preferred name or hide their gender, or be helped only by people of the same gender.

After completing a few lessons about technical details, etiquette and cultural considerations, helpers can be more confident in receiving their first call.

Request for Help

When a new arrival finds themselves in a pinch, they’ll send a help request. Multimodal inputs and distinctly colored categories allow for the 25% of the refugee population who is not literate, even in their native language, to still benefit from the interactions Nearby offers.

Translation Support

Then, when the pair meets, they may find themselves in need of language support. In these instances, our translation tool is available. For some refugees, things that we consider to be very mundane are actually very foreign concepts, and there may not even be a word in their native language. In light of this, users can pull up im

Parting Words

Finally, when the time comes to part ways, both parties have one more chance to express gratitude with a brief message and leave on a high note.

Changing the community support ecosystem

stakeholder map before and after.001 Original

Currently refugees interaction to others in their new home is primarily done through official organizations. There is little opportunity to interact with the majority of locals. Similarly, locals often have little awareness of the refugees in their own neighborhoods.

Nearby shifts this model and create a direct connection between refugees and locals, widening their community, augmenting the support refugees already receive, and hopefully freeing up resources at official organizations.

Our Process


In order to generate empathy between refugees and local residents we needed to gain understanding for them ourselves. We spoke to … and … Additionally there is a third key stakeholder here which is the organizations that provide assistance to refugees.

Connecting with Refugees

Refugees are not a uniform group and their needs and experiences in their new homes can be impacted not just by cultural differences but by skills (literacy and technological exposure) and level of acculturation. A trend that came up for almost all refugees was that language barriers were a huge challenge for communication and acculturation. Even everyday tasks could be daunting when in a vastly new environment. One story that really stuck with us was one refugee who spoke about walking through a grocery store and being at a loss for wha to buy because brands and packaging were completely unfamiliar.

The Locals’ Experience

On the side of locals and established residents we saw that there was a spectrum of perspectives and attitudes towards refugees ranging from those that were actively opposed to refugees entering their country to those that regularly volunteered with them.

We found that even the most welcoming of locals couldn’t fully comprehend the experience of someone forced to flee their home and adjust to a completely different environment.

Volunteer opportunities don’t often accommodate schedules. We experienced this problem ourselves. We sought out multiple ways to volunteer over the course of this project, even though we had committed many hours a week towards understanding the refugee experience wasn’t able to find a volunteer opportunity that didn’t conflict with our classes.

Support Organizations

There are already a lot of great organizations working with refugees who we had the opportunity to speak with ranging from JFCS who is the largest refugee resettlement organization in Pittsburgh, to grassroots non-profits helping with skill training to donation of goods to providing creative outlets for self expression.

Journey Matrix

As we gathered our insights, we plotted out the key points of the journey to acculturation. In the early stages, the primary concern is survival. Later on, when someone is well settled, the focus on needs shifts to spiritual fulfillment.

Forms of support exist for much of this process, but day-to-day acclimation early on can’t easily be handled by existing support organizations.

Areas of opportunity

Based on the conversations we had with support organizations and potential helpers, we found an area of need that could be manageable by casual volunteers.

Persona Spectra

Recognizing that the refugee experience is not monolithic, we plotted out three axes that influence the way that new arrivals can acculturate. Set against one another, and with the addition of human factors based on gender and country of origin, these spectra came to represent four personas with which we could brainstorm possible interventions.

After considering the needs of our personas, we developed four scenarios representing different interventions. “Instant help” tested best, so we fleshed it out into a full app.







Path to acculturation (Not assimilation)

Although Nearby has a simple premise, it responds to a clear need, both for refugees and their welcoming communities. For refugees, the small interactions that Nearby facilitates bring necessary ease to the first few steps to acculturation.


By providing a way for them to communicate effectively about what they need, they can become their own advocates early on, and tell their stories in the way that they prefer.

An empathic community

Nearby will also create a community where acting on empathy is not something that you have to set aside time for, but a part of daily life, and this active mindset will likely ripple beyond the interactions that take place within the platform.

An inclusive society

This will ultimately lead to a shift toward the more inclusive definition of community that Jeremy Rifkin envisions, where empathy is not just reserved for the familiar, but extends to a commitment to the well being of strangers across the world.


Breadth: from Pittsburgh to the world

Pittsburgh is a good place to start for Nearby, because Pennsylvania accepts the 7th highest number of refugees of any US state. But we’ve modeled it in a way that it can be easily expanded to other cities both in the US and elsewhere that are committed to welcoming refugees.

Depth: thinking beyond the refugee community

Our research was highly focused on people who fall into the UN High Commissioner for Refugees definition of “refugee”, which is actually quite narrow. We’ve been encouraged to think about how we Nearby can benefit not only displaced peoples, but other vulnerable people in the community. We’ve tailored the language in the platform to avoid the word refugees specifically, so that we can in the future consider partnerships with organizations who represent other vulnerable groups.


We set ourselves up with a challenge—working with a vulnerable population made it difficult to complete research in a thorough and timely manner. As a result, we polished things up before we could call this work complete. Nonetheless, we didn’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Some takeaways:

Unorthodox research has mixed results.

We had a lot of trouble organizing workshops with refugee communities because they had very different work schedules. We later also learned that scheduling ahead of time was a concept that was alien to them. On the other hand, the guerilla research we did in the streets was highly effective.

Be conscious of cultural and lifestyle factors.

Among both citizens and refugees, we ran into cultural factors that were unanticipated and highly impactful, both on research and prototyping. These included differing work schedules and availability, language, interpersonal conservatism, and even differing notions of the concept of time.

I don’t know that there would have been a way around this in the short period, but it’s important to consider research scheduling as a factor in the timeline of a project.

Materiality drives conversations.

At certain points, we tested low-fidelity mockups on phones. This change in materiality from paper to object inadvertently raised the fidelity and affected the conversation.

The best resources come from good connections.

We ran into a lot of problems going through formal channels to find research participants. In the end, word-of-mouth from a few key stakeholders, including staff from the mayor’s office, made a huge difference. Once participants are gathered (barring selection bias), formality can come later.