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IT in times of crisis

Doing more with IT in a time of crisis: how Norway innovated the way it handled a tidal wave of asylum seekers

By all accounts, it was a heartbreaking crisis: in 2015, a civil war in Syria, along with conflicts in Somalia, Iraq and Eritrea resulted in an unprecedented number of asylum seekers applying to enter European countries, including Norway.
 
By year end, some 24,000 applicants had arrived in Norway alone: each one having to be processed by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI). This group had never before handled such volume in such a short period of time. Even the logistics were a massive challenge, Kenneth Glesnes, IT Supervisor at UDI recalls: “how do we move asylum seekers from their point of entry into the country, between refugee centers and get them in for their interviews?”
 
Looking for solutions, Glesnes thought back to a video interview-based test program that had been rolled out internally a year earlier. It had proven effective, having saved the UDI millions of Crowns and, most important of all, had made them better equipped to meet the challenge of processing applications in high volumes. In effect, the power of video interviews helped pull together UDI—a widely dispersed team in offices across the country—and helped them function as a solid decision making entity.
 
However, conventional video conferencing—while widely used—tended to require meeting rooms equipped with expensive proprietary solutions and most were far from being user friendly systems. They needed a better solution, quickly. And that’s why UDI called on Atea.

With Atea as partner, a solution takes shape
 
Time was of the essence: in choosing Atea as IT partner, UDI assigned this challenge: find a more user friendly, better functioning and more cost efficient video-based solution as quickly as possible.
 
Atea and the UDI team delivered that solution in just 15 days. As Glesnes explains, a group of Lync* licenses, combined with Microsoft’s license agreement for account establishment, meant that the year-old test program could be repurposed without extra costs. Microsoft’s communications software thus became part of the project, set up to make internal communications more seamless.

Meet the team: Senior Advisor Cecilie Widsteen, Kenneth Glesnes led the project on the UDI side, together with Ivar Økseter of Atea. Image: TU Story Labs
 
Costs were manageable: there were some server costs and a few microphones and cameras to pay for, but it didn’t take long to equip 11 meeting rooms with the necessary equipment.
 
Moving from test project to front-line implementation
 
Still, the project was effectively a proof of concept. The solution was not yet proven on the front lines with a mission critical issue. For Atea and UDI, this presented a new challenge: how to scale their video-interview solution so that it could be used country-wide to quickly process its growing backlog of asylum seekers.
 

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The initial thought was to conduct return conversations via a video system and to set up equipment in some of the 110 refugee centers that had been established nationwide. But by late 2015, the situation was becoming increasingly complex: the number of centers had grown to over 300. By interviewing the new arrivals on video, rather than accompanying them to Oslo, UDI avoided having to procure interpreters and pay for accommodations and other expenses. Otherwise, costs could have easily skyrocketed to NOK 80,000 or higher per person, depending on where the applicant was traveling from. 
 
Instead, the team began sending packages to the refugee centers. Each received a laptop, a camera and a headset. The staff at each center were responsible for finding applicants suitable for video interviewing, and for accompanying them to the interviewing room. The interviews were conducted via video link. In most cases, this involved working with a case worker and interpreter located in Oslo.
 
Sustainable infrastructure and cost savings
 
UDI is open about the challenges presented by having to conduct the interviews over video link. As Glesnes explains, some staff worried about potential communication breakdowns or lagging sound or image, so extra work was needed to prioritize audio and video on the network. He adds that while cheaper web cams could have been used, Atea’s choice of equipment—including servers, firewalls and load balance—meant that everything performed well on a mission critical project.
 
Still, the cost savings were measurable. The average cost savings per Skype interview were around NOK 5000, according to UDI. This multiplied into significant savings, given how many applications had to be processed.
 
As Atea Team Leader Ivar Økseter concludes, the project was a win-win for both solution provider and customer: “We found the system a great joy to work with, mostly because of the technological challenges, but also because the people in the organization seem very excited about everything we give them. We don’t see that very often.
 
*Note: Lync 2013 was Microsoft’s enterprise communications solution until 2015, when it was replaced by Skype for Business. The latest version of Skype for Business is now a closely integrated part of the Office suite.

Adapted from original post on Atea.no

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