German volunteers using free/libre/open source Sahana software are successfully managing refugee information in Manheim, Germany while the German Federal government, using antiquated proprietary software, are struggling with the issue.
The juxtaposition between the success of volunteer managed Sahana systems and the failure of myriad of Federal and local systems is so stark that major German television broadcaster ZDF has published an article by Peter Welchering entitled “Registering refugees: It could be easier” explaining the complicated situation to the German public.
Below is an abridged and edited translation of the article in English.
Registering Refugees: It Could be Easier
Written in German by Peter Welchering, translated into English by Martin Thomsen, edited by Devin Balkind
In Mannheim Germany, Red Cross volunteers and software programmers using the free/libre/open-source Sahana disaster management software application are showing the German government better ways to manage refugee registration information.
Even though the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has been using computer systems for over 14 years, they still can’t report on the amount of refugees registered in Germany. Additionally, the processing of asylum applications takes far too long, because the data collection is too slow.
Since 2005 the German government has been using the Maris system, but this system doesn’t integrate with local systems, requiring data registration of refugees collected by the Federal Police be typed in again to services of the Nuremberg-based Federal Office.
Due to antiquated data management approaches, the Federal immigration authorities have been using one software system (Maris) since 2005. Federal Police use a different system and must retype it to merge with immigration authorities. Local, city and county officers can’t even use email to send data, so they use fax and even the main letter. The article estimates that refugee data are separately collected up to five times.
“The system was originally used only for internal asylum procedures,” says Tobias Plate, spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior. He argues: “The external interfaces are too complex to implement.” The Interior Ministry has for months carried out several feasibility studies, as to how such interfaces would have to look. Until today the result is still abstract. This was also what was to be expected, so insiders say. Because the manufacturer of the Maris-system, which has been developed for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees specifically, does not play any role in this feasibility study. Originally Maris was namely developed by Siemens Business Service. Their post-successor’s name is Atos and has as a specialist in the field of document management a very good name. This is what the administrative specialists of the Ministry of Interior apparently overlooked.
While they still are busy in the Ministry of Interior trying to work out how to avoid future duplication of data collection, Red Cross assistants and programmers in Mannheim have shown, how easy and quick the problem could be solved. They have over the course of days provided a complete management system for a reception center, including open interfaces for master data. The basis of the system is a Free and Open Software System called Sahana, which is developed and maintained by volunteers and has been successfully applied in many disaster response and relief operations in Pakistan, on the Philippines, in Nepal and Japan.
Peter Kusterer, whose main job is with the computer giant IBM, has initiated the Mannheimer project. “With Sahana, we can search for the status of refugees easily, transparently and securely”, says the experienced software expert. In just four days Kusterer has adapted the existing software of the Sahana with his team of volunteers, so that the Mannheimer Reception Center for refugees can be fully managed by it.
“Previously it was not even clear how many refugees are actually present in the reception area”, Kusterer describes the initial situation in the Benjamin Franklin Village in Mannheim. This is comparable to the status of the situation with the federal police, the immigration authorities and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
Now all employees of the reception site have an accurate picture of who is currently in the reception area, when he or she has an appointment for a medical examination or interviews during the asylum application process. Double registration of master data does not take place any more in Mannheim. The pressure on the staff of the facility in the Benjamin Franklin Village has declined considerably.
At the Federal Ministry of the Interior, however, they do not want to see these benefits. The reservations towards Free and Open Source Software are too strong. The ministerials’ prefer to rely on expensive commercial solutions.”
The article continues with a sidebar explaining more about Sahana. Translation below:
The principle of open source software
Open source applications have above all an advantage: the software is particularly simple and can be quickly and inexpensively customized to meet the specific needs of a user. The reason this works is because software developers who use standard programs under the open source license and customize them often share those customization with others. In this instance, developer Peter Kusterer adapted Sahana to meet the needs of the Mannheim refugee reception center. The resulting enhanced software called DRC Mannheim template for Sahana can be used by everyone free of charge now. Even the Ministry of Interior could build their own free system using this software if they so chose.
United Nations praises Sahana
Sahana is a free collection of software under the open source license. The project began in 2004 after the Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka, which was devastated by that disaster. Since its founding, Sahana software has been used successfully in Pakistan, Nepal, Japan and after hurricanes in North America. UN staff praised above all the rapid adaptability of the software and its effective management of information in very large movements of refugees. Sahana provides software for registration of people, assistance management, a scheduling tool and diverse location directories. Thanks to the open interfaces, it could quickly and easily solve issues faced by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees and help integrate their data with that of the federal police. This has been proven by volunteers here in Mannheim.
Interfaces for document management
Data from refugees is recorded immediately after crossing the border by the federal police, but it can’t be easily processed in the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees because of a lack of interoperability between the Maris system of the Federal Office and other agencies. This is happening even though this data is formatted using open document standard called Extended Markup Language, XML for short. This standard is used for example in the publishing field or even in the office applications very broad. There are many applications on the market that can accept XML records (including Sahana) but the Ministry of the Interior has yet to come up with an approach to solve this issue.