In late 2021, the United Nations and BMW Group chose ten grassroots initiatives from over 1200 applications from 120 countries to receive the Intercultural Innovation Award. Vancouver-based PeaceGeeks was among the group with Welcome to Canada (formerly Arrival Advisor), a free app designed for those navigating a settlement journey to Canada. The announcement was celebrated by a small group of Microsoft Vancouver developers who’d had the opportunity to work alongside the team on such an impactful project.
Moving to a new country is a challenging experience. You’re exploring communities, engaging potential employers, and setting up services from scratch. It’s especially difficult for refugees who arrive with fewer connections and resources. PeaceGeeks creates digital tools to support those who have been displaced – and over the last two years, employees at Microsoft’s Vancouver engineering campus have contributed to the evolution of these tools.
Welcome to Canada is a free, multilingual app and available to anyone in Canada. It provides trusted, relevant information and personalized recommendations, having been designed in tandem with immigrants, refugees, community organizations, service providers and government. Users can compare cities, access information on registering for Canada’s Medical Services Plan, find job boards, locate banking services and more. To provide as much first-language support as possible, Welcome to Canada’s resources are offered in up to 10 languages: English, French, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Korean, Punjabi, Tagalog, Ukrainian and Farsi.
The partnership between PeaceGeeks and Microsoft began with an employee-driven campaign that paired BC newcomers with tech sector workers in virtual chats on careers, making connections and becoming part of the Vancouver community. Given the diverse backgrounds of the MSV team, with many having immigrated to Canada themselves, the event was a catalyst.
PeaceGeeks and MSV reconnected on updates to Welcome to Canada as part of Hackathon 2021, work that would help the organization in their UN bid. And then again in early 2022 for a focused design session to make additional updates in answer to the invasion of Ukraine.
“The design sprint was a chance to get to know one another and come up with big picture ideas,” noted Rasmus Storjohann, Chief Technology Officer at PeaceGeeks. “Microsoft was again getting ready for Hackathon, and we were able to take that momentum into a development sprint that allowed the team to really dig in.”
The Welcome to Canada hack project won third prize in Vancouver’s local science fair and propelled the team right into October’s GIVE campaign. A handful of employees leveraged their volunteer hours to help PeaceGeeks ship their app in time for European immigrants arriving before the month’s end.
“The team was really engaged and enthusiastic,” Rasmus noted. “We worked on this internally for months, and when someone from outside our organization offers their time, it’s a nice boost.”
PeaceGeeks rebranded the app as ‘Welcome to Canada’ (from Arrival Advisor)in March of 2023 and has expanded it nationally with further functionality. Having initially focused on British Columbia and Manitoba, the ability to leverage Microsoft’s Vancouver developers allowed the internal engineering team to fast-track their national strategy, expanding to include Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“It was my first time participating in Hackathon and the team had lots of energy,” explained Hank Nguyen, MSV Software Engineer. “Many of us are at the start of our careers and the work was very different from our day-to-day, so it was a great to work together and feel like we were truly making an impact.”
Development of the Welcome to Canada app is ongoing, adding Ontario, Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick and Newfoundland / Labrador later this year, and employees at Microsoft Vancouver are honoured to continue supporting efforts to deliver such a warm welcome.