SOS Tech: How Apps Are Being Designed for War Zones
For Sandra Hassan and her I Am Alive app, the question was simple: are my friends and family OK? In January of this year, the graduate student from Beirut became concerned that the deteriorating situation in her native Lebanon meant that her friends and family were at near-constant risk. In the immediate aftermath of a detonation by a suicide bomber, Hassan noticed that networks quickly crumbled under the increased load of people desperately trying to connect with loved ones. Calls went straight to voicemail, inducing panic.
Survivors turned to social networks to provide ways of staying in contact. With Hassan’s app, a touch of a button sends a tweet to the user’s followers stating, “I am still alive! #Lebanon #LebanonBombing.” Within a month, I Am Alive had been downloaded 5,000 times in Lebanon alone, and has since been reconfigured to allow users in other conflict zones to stay in contact. Today, it has been downloaded more than 7,000 times throughout 25 countries at a steady rate of five to 10 downloads per day.
Screenshots of Hassan’s I Am Alive app. (Google Play store)
If necessity is the mother of invention, then war provides a necessity that few in Silicon Valley will ever have to grapple with. But in the Middle East and elsewhere, conflict is driving a new breed of tech entrepreneurs to come up with answers to some of life’s most pressing questions.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, hundreds of women are raped by soldiers, with little or no legal system to bring the perpetrators to justice. In response, a team from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a nonprofit based in New York, has developed MediCapt. The tool allows doctors to fill out a digital medical form, letting them add photos, describe injuries, leave notes about the attackers, and other details that are key to a criminal investigation. Recorded on a smartphone, the information can then be shared with law enforcement without violating people’s privacy in times of devastation.
In Syria, projects such as Women Under Siege use reports of sexual violence to create crowdsourced maps documenting incidents of abuse. The group hopes that after the war has ended, they can form the basis of future prosecutions. Similar maps have appeared in Egypt and India. In Egypt, HarassMap has been collecting reports on sexual harassment since 2010, with recent figures indicating that more than 1,000 reports have been filed. In India, meanwhile, VAW Mumbai has documented 44 cases in the city alone.