It’s important to recognize the limits of technology

Kavi Harshawat is a user experience researcher and designer, and was formerly a Code for America fellow. This summer, he spent time in McAllen, Texas, during the beginning of the family separation crisis at the border.


A father and his two boys wait, exhausted and anxious. They are in a space no bigger than a classroom, packed with around two hundred other migrants waiting for food, water, a shower, fresh clothes, medical attention, and more. Amidst the bedlam, the father’s 2 year old begins to vomit. Panic ensues. The father yells out in a mix of broken Spanish and English for help. Some of the onlookers back away, until one finally gets the attention of my friend, Vivian, who is handing out dixie cup rations of water. She hastens to the now sobbing father as he holds his youngest in his arms. His older son hangs back with a blank stare. Viv rushes the family to one of the two medical volunteers operating out of a back office. The doctor — who normally asks new patients to wait their turn — fears the boy may be contagious and hurries to him. After a brief checkup and no signs any serious disease, the doctor offers what little she can: pinkish over-the-counter baby syrup, a bottle of juice, and some full bottles of water. The father, still green with anxiety, calms a little. His sobs stop and he quietly sits back down with his family while Viv and I clean up the mess on the floor.

There are things that cannot be fixed with technology. Even those that can be — however simple they may seem — are fraught with unforeseen challenges. I was reminded of this over and over on a trip to McAllen, TX this past summer. Viv invited me to help out as a part of New America’s effort to bring technology to bear on the immigration crisis swelling at the border. When we arrived we had high hopes of improving the way lawyers communicated with those who sat in detention centers; centralizing the way various non-profits shared information with one another; making an easy digital tool for separated children and parents to be reunited; and much more. But like every digital service effort I’ve ever seen, the facts on the ground were infinitely more complicated. Most detention centers only allowed a handful lawyers in at one time and barred everything from cell-phones to photocopiers. The non-profits, each driven by their respective missions and interests, had little incentive to work together. The government data about family members was legally restricted to a single organization, making it difficult to circulate around the country.  

While we pushed forward on these efforts, we found ourselves drawn to a lesser-known center operating on the ground in McAllen called Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley, but more commonly called Respite. Respite transitions the hundreds of migrants released on parole from ICE detention centers each day to their next destination within the United States, often to be reunited with family. Staff members and volunteers meet the families at the bus station where ICE has dropped them off and bring them to their facility for a clean meal, shower, change of clothes, medical care, and to contact their US-based relatives to coordinate travel. With Respite’s help, these families get bus tickets to meet friends, family, and acquaintances who will help them start their new lives or continue their immigration proceeding. Respite provides these services in a space that is too small to fit the donations of clothes, shoes, diapers, toothbrushes, toilet paper, and other goods they receive from around the country. Their facility only has one shower that the hundreds of visitors line up to use every day. Migrants who have to stay the night must be shuttled to a nearby church. All of this is done with support from dozens of local and visiting volunteers. Here too, it was hard to see what role technology had to play.

But when we asked Sister Norma, the head of Respite, what she felt was needed, she responded with an answer so quickly it sounded rehearsed: the organization needed a way to intake visitors electronically. The center was months behind in updating their accountability reports because of the existing paper process and the sheer volume of visitors. Sister Norma also requested a bus schedule that could be shown to visitors so they wouldn’t miss their departures.

The immediate solution seemed obvious enough: a Google Form that could collect the intake information. The data could be manipulated into reports and bus schedules. We could gather Chromebooks for each volunteer and mount a TV to show the schedule. But the execution was a challenge. We drafted up a Google Form and a bus schedule and made sure it worked with some older data, but there was no time to spare for the luxury of training because the center’s volunteers swapped in and out every few hours. We couldn’t use the new process with a subset of the volunteers either: information from one volunteer needed to be handed off to others to share the burden of contacting the visitors’ friends and relatives and getting migrants to the bus station. We had to roll out this new process in real-time to everyone  — it had to be all-or-nothing.

The first two nights were rough. Some volunteers had trouble using the new computers we provided. Others were frustrated with missing fields or unsure about new ones. We rushed to respond to panicked shouts from those who couldn’t find information they had entered. Finally, by the third night, things calmed. By now everyone largely agreed that it was best we’d ripped off the band-aid and were grateful for our responsiveness. Still, we knew our solution wasn’t a sustainable one. Before leaving McAllen we tried setting up a mailing list of techie volunteers to respond to the near-daily troubleshooting requests. But those working at the center preferred contacting Viv and I directly — probably because they had met us in person. While we sought resources to build a more resilient solution, the brittle one we had put in place began to show its limits. Over the next two months, right as we finally secured funding and started putting together a more tailored solution, the troubleshooting requests decreased until eventually they stopped altogether. We attempted to reach out to no avail. We had been ghosted.

I don’t blame them. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would’ve been to encounter the same problems week after week with no one immediately available to help them. Sometimes I wonder if they found a new group of techies to build a better solution. Maybe ICE found some arbitrary legal excuse that forced them to stop collecting information. Or they just went back to using paper.

That said, we learned a lot for next time a crisis rolls around, as one inevitably will. The Facebook fundraiser to help reunite children with their families set a record, with over $20 million sent to the border. When money like this flows into organizations dealing with crisis, it would be useful to designate resources for technology projects that work in the short-term and the long-term. Perhaps if we could show the benefit of sustainable cures, instead of bandaids,  we could have integrated local tech staff into the organization to offer a more resilient solution from the start and sustain the work after we left.

But it’s important for anyone working in public interest technology to recognize the limits of technology. Even when you listen to your users, start simple and iterate, and work towards sustainability, beware of the immeasurable hidden challenges you may encounter in even the simplest of solutions. It’s important to be readily available to your users as you’re iterating and transitioning them to a new system. In-person connections are more effective than remote impersonal ones. In a crisis setting, there are definitely limits to the tolerance your users may have for small technical issues — after all, they are likely serving a much more urgent goal than kicking the tires on your new tool. Finally, for all the flash and excitement one gets from helping out in an situation like the immigration crisis, it’s so very important to remember that the technology isn’t going to hand out water to a weariful room of migrants. It isn’t going to organize thousands of donated clothes in a broom closet. And it certainly won’t calm a bereft father fearful for his son’s life.