How the UN is tackling ‘compassion fatigue and fear’ in its data laden tie-up with Google, Searching for Syria

UNHCR, the UN's Refugee Agency, has strengthened its partnership with Google with the launch of Searching for Syria – a microsite dedicated to explaining the facts related to the ongoing conflict within and surrounding the Middle Eastern state.

The responsive site features high-resolution imagery combined with UNHCR data, Google Search Trends and YouTube content to answer the five most widespread questions that people ask online regarding Syria. These are: what was Syria like before the war?; what is happening in Syria?; who is a refugee?; where are Syrian refugees going?; and how can I help Syrian refugees?

It's not the first time that the two organisations have worked together; last year they co-created a video to showcase the Refugee Olympic Team and other collaborative efforts strive to bring connectivity to refugees. In this instance, the aim was to tackle a waning public interest in Syria – which has been in a state of conflict since 2011 – through the power of facts.

“We teamed up with Google to break through the compassion fatigue and the fear – to offer a new entry point that helps people reengage with this conflict, consider it staggering human cost, and take action to address the urgent humanitarian needs,” explained Christopher Reardon, chief of content production at UNHCR.

For Reardon, the appeal of working alongside Google on such a project doesn’t just come in the form of the reach of its platform and search data, but from its staff’s ability to create and design.

“UNHCR can provide authoritative refugee data, expert knowledge of the humanitarian response, and a rich body of multimedia storytelling that we’ve produced over the course of this devastating conflict,” he said. “But as a humanitarian organisation we can’t match the talent that Google can bring to bear in designing and developing a website as immersive and compelling as Searching for Syria.”

He added: “Nor do we have the same level of access to the underlying information from Google Search trends.”

In 2016, more than 160 million searches about Syria and refugees were logged on Google. The search giant analysed each one of these to uncover the five pillar questions that the Searching For Syria project is balanced on, as well developing data visualisations and 360 photospheres to create a more immersive interface.

“Google has also been able to promote the site in ways we couldn’t possibly do on our own,” said Reardon. “By featuring it on the Google search homepage earlier this week, for example, they helped drive millions of visitors to the site.”

These ‘millions’ came in days rather than weeks: in fact 20 million page views were logged in the first four days and more than 3.6 million have watched the promotional video. Perhaps more saliently, over 10,000 people have now subscribed to the refugee agency’s YouTube channel and it has “seen a spike in donations and signatures on the #WithRefugees petition", which encourages the public to demonstrate their ongoing support of those misplaced in times of conflict and aggression.

“Some of the words we’re hearing are ‘haunting’, ‘impressive’, ‘exceptional’, ‘well-done’, ‘user-friendly’ and ‘really useful’,” said Reardon. “I’d love to explore ways to raise awareness of the many millions forced to flee their homes in Yemen or Somalia or South Sudan.

“Like those uprooted by the conflict in Syria, they too need the world to pay attention and lend a hand.”

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.