As the Syrian Civil War drags on, one American company is hoping to harness the power of social media to help save lives.
Rebels in the Northwestern province of Idlib are making their last stand against government forces backed by heavy Russian airstrikes. And as they brace for the next government offensive, both the rebels and civilians in the area are looking to a new app to help give them an early warning when airstrikes are incoming. The carnage has forced innovation before. Civilians, at first, used walkie-talkies to warn of warplanes. Rescue teams developed more sophisticated ways to liberate families from the rubble. In hospitals, doctors developed workarounds for when lights go out and drugs run dry. And then in 2016, a team of computer developers found a way to link all those efforts.
It's called "Sentry" - a smartphone and computer application that acts as an alert system, using data from both human observers and report sensors. John Jaeger, one of the co-creators, calls it a ground-breaking app that could signal a breakthrough in early-warning detection systems by using "crowdsourcing" as its main data points. "These observations are of aircraft in flight and they include facts like what kind of airplane, which direction it is heading, and then of course things like time of day and where the observation was made." Jaeger added that the system "then makes a determination of where and when that aircraft might go. This determination creates a warning for the local populace and potentially affected communities, and that warning goes out over popular social media platforms."
It's fairly simple to use. When users see a military aircraft, they enter the data into three designated fields. The data is then processed by the app, which creates a list of possible targets based on estimates of the plane's trajectory - triggering warning messages on social media, and air raid sirens in towns and cities throughout the area. Dave Levin, another co-founder, says the company is "doing a lot of outreach to try to get as many people aware of the program and understanding how to use the app and particularly outreach to women."
Levin and Jaeger are both Americans with experience in Mideast conflicts. Jaeger is a former State Department employee, and he's used his experience and contacts to get funding for the project from countries including Great Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States, as well as private donors. He says the goal, in addition to saving lives, was to help empower the Syrian people to help themselves.