Startup Develops Digital Translator for Refugees

Germany was caught unprepared last year when refugees arrived in numbers not seen since the Bosnian war. Hundreds of temporary shelters were hastily set up in school halls, airport hangars and even former concentration camps. Since then all sectors of the society, from politics through to education, have been playing catch up to try to help the new arrivals to integrate. The latest initiative to do so comes from the healthcare sector. An app called the Health Navigator translates basic phrases into German, Arabic, English and Farsi.

Sponsored by the state medical insurance company, AOK, the Android app is designed to convey simple instructions or requests that commonly come up during a doctor’s consultation. Phrases such as: “Please open your mouth,” or, “I will now take some blood,” can be displayed in two languages at a time. And both the doctor and the patient can initiate an utterance.

The app has been welcomed by doctors and NGOs currently seeking to provide healthcare to refugees. Dr Skarabis Querfeld from Medizin Hilft Flüchtlinge (Medicine Helps Refugees) says the app is much more efficient than the printouts of key phrases that her organisation used to give to doctors: “It [the app] could be very useful in practices. Refugees literally have it in their back pocket,” Querfeld says. “Imagine you had to tell a mother she needs to give her child medication three times a day to reduce a fever. That kind of thing needs to be translated correctly, which is much easier with the app.”

Curamatik, a Berlin based startup, developed the application in just two months. Project manager, Sebastian Ahrndt, says when the AOK contracted his team they wanted something that would provide immediate assistance to an acute need. “It had to be fast and superficial,”Ahrndt says, which is why the app does not have a real-time translation feature yet. Ahrndt’s team consulted with translators as well as with nurses, who have an in depth knowledge of typical consultation procedures, to get an insight into the phrases that might be most helpful.

According to Ahrndt, a number of cultural and idiomatic challenges needed to be overcome in the development process too. “For example, when someone says that they have butterflies in their stomach we might take it to mean they are in love whereas in Arabic the person is trying to refer to a psychological problem.”

Curamatik also had to adjust their normal programming approaches to be able to cater to their users. Although smartphones are very common among refugees, the Android devices they typically use are four generations behind the ones on the market in Europe. These devices do not support languages that are read from right to left, like Farsi and Arabic. So Ahrndt’s team has had to develop masks to accommodate for that fact.

In future Curamatik plans to incorporate features that can be used in psychotherapeutic contexts. Providing counselling to those who have been traumatised by war became a big priority last month when an Afghan refugee attacked 4 people with an axe in Würzburg.

So far the app has been installed on 400 devices and has been available for four weeks. The reviews on the Google Play store have largely been positive. Whether it will have a lasting impact on refugees’ visits to the doctor is too soon to tell. What is clear is that this kind of technology is sorely needed.


T L Andrews


TL Andrews is a multi-media journalist based in Berlin. He produces features for radio, television and print outlets with a focus on German and European issues.

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