Central New York, Public Safety, Technology

Syracuse University Project to Help Refugees Report Crimes

Professor Murali Venkatesh said at the start of the project he thought the refugee community would reject the idea. (c) 2016 Allie Wahl

By Allie Wahl Syracuse, N.Y. (NCC News) —  It’s hard to call 911 and report a crime when a person doesn’t speak English. This is a problem many refugees who come to the United States face and a problem that a group at Syracuse University is hoping to fix.

Syracuse University Center for Convergence and Emerging Network Technology, CCENT, is a research initiative by the School of Information Studies, or the iSchool. CCENT provides solutions for industries through different research projects. One project a team is working on is a phone system called SpeakEZ to help refugees report crimes and problems in their own language.

“Anytime they have a housing issue, a landlord complaint, any issues with code enforcement they call SpeakEZ and they’re guided through the process of leaving a voice message,” said Hallam Tuck, community policing liaison at Catholic Charities CYO. “Once they leave a message that message is noted and put in a database.”

The message is then translated by a volunteer into English. The team behind SpeakEZ keeps records of the types of complaints and how many they get about certain issues so they can track the problems and hopefully fix them.

The phone system is just a phone number that refugees can call into and leave a message. The CCENT project team has tested it once with the Karen refugee community last year and just recently started testing it within the Somali community.

“It gives the community a real ability to make a difference as opposed to depending on other people to act for them,” said Professor Murali Venkatesh, the iSchool professor who is overseeing the project.

Venkatesh says they will continue the project in the fall semester and hope SpeakEZ can improve the living conditions of refugees across Syracuse.