This App Sends A Distress Signal From Immigrants Being Detained

Notifica leverages tech to help undocumented immigrants with one thing that is within their control: being prepared.

This App Sends A Distress Signal From Immigrants Being Detained
[Images: via Huge] [Images: via Huge]

In early February, federal immigration authorities launched a series of nationwide raids that swept up over 680 undocumented immigrants in states like in California, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, and Kansas. Though similar raids were carried out during the Obama administration, the breadth of the raids last month signaled the increased enforcement for which President Trump has called.


For many undocumented immigrants, fate feels completely beyond control right now. Yet immigration lawyers and advocacy groups are working to remind them that there are some things that can, and should, be prepared: having a lawyer’s number, for example, and an emergency plan set in place for loved ones in case of the worst.

At the digital agency Huge, developers are leveraging design and technology to make that preparation a little bit easier. Huge’s new app Notifica, which will debut at SXSW this week, would allow for those who are swept up in raids to notify their lawyers, family members, friends, and any other contacts in their phone by releasing a series of pre-written text messages. By facilitating planning and organization beforehand, the tool gives users the ability to set into motion a prepared emergency plan quickly and easily in an urgent, high-stress situation.

Huge created the app in collaboration with the immigrant advocacy organization United We Dream, which has been doggedly working to get immigrants the resources and information they need in case of detainment in recent months. The idea for collaboration came out of a conversation that Huge engineer Natalia Margolis had with Adrian Reyna, United We Dream’s director of membership and tech strategies, at a San Francisco-based meet-up for women and Latinos in tech. Reyna mentioned, half jokingly, that what immigrants really need during a raid is a panic button—something that would let all of their loved ones know at once what was happening. Margolis took it as a design challenge.

She brought the problem back to Huge, which was coincidentally holding a hackathon soon after. Margolis and three other engineers on her team mocked up a very rough version of the app and got it running within 24 hours. Later, they worked alongside Reyna and others at his organization to refine the app to focus on what would be most useful in the moment. Reyna stressed that he recommends the first thing people do in the event of a raid is to call their lawyers. Others expressed the importance of telling their kids how to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they are detained. By talking to immigrants who had gone through these types of raids and were later released, Margolis and her team recognized that they could at least help solve the logistical challenges that come with being forcibly removed from your life without a moment’s notice. Even for those who prepared lawyers and forms ahead of time, kids still needed to be picked up from school, employers notified, pets fed.

The app’s most important design tenets were that it be simple to use, easy to deploy, and completely secure. Users create an account, and then are prompted to create a contact by entering a name and phone number, as well as a personalized message. Once the messages and contacts are saved, they cannot be accessed again. The next time a user pulls up the app, a large button will appear; tapping that button will send out all of the messages at once. Once sent, all of the messages are deleted immediately and the data erased. For people without access to a phone at the time of a raid, Huge and United We Dream are setting up a hotline to call to activate the network remotely.

Privacy and security were major concerns to Huge when the team was refining the first version of the app created at the hackathon. One way that information about raids and detentions is spread now is through social media, which could potentially be used against undocumented immigrants. Though Huge declined to share details about the measures it took to secure the data, CMO Patricia Korth-McDonnell says that the same team at the agency that has worked on programming and security for clients like large financial companies also secured Notifica, using a combination of encryption, deleting, and other security protocol. With the messages and contacts, she says, “you enter [the data] once, then it’s gone. There’s no way it will be used for the reverse function”—in other words, as a way for ICE to track undocumented immigrants or use the information against them in any way.


Huge will be demoing the app in Austin this week, and it will be available for free download in Apple and Google Play app stores shortly thereafter. The team purposefully designed the app to work well on older versions of Android—the type of phones United We Dream said was most widely used by its constituents. United We Dream has plans to works with large immigrant communities in states like Texas, Florida, and New Mexico to make sure they know how to download and use the app. The organization will also share sample messages and recommend how to use the app most effectively, with tips on what information to include and to whom.

Design alone cannot solve large, complex social and systemic issues like immigration policy or raids, but Notifica is a good example of how to wield technology in a way that will be useful to those most affected by it. The app is most powerful in its specificity and narrow scope. “An app is not going to solve this issue totally,” says Margolis. “This was a piece that we thought would be feasible to tackle.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.