Technology Volunteers Rush to Save Turkey Earthquake Victims

Furkan Kılıç and Eser Özvataf woke up in Istanbul on the morning of February 6 to the news of an earthquake that had left large parts of Southeastern Turkey and western Syria devastated. The scene of the destruction is overwhelming at first. “We are very saddened by what happened in our country,” said Kılıç. “It’s hard to process what happened.”

But soon the couple got to work. Kılıç is the founding engineer and Özvataf CTO of software startup Datapad. Both are well-known members of the Turkish technology scene—Özvataf was previously the technical director for Getir, Turkey’s first decacorn—and between them they have nearly three decades of experience in the industry. They started mobilizing colleagues via Twitter, and within hours they had put together a rapid response movement, simply called the “Earthquake Relief Project”, bootstrap technology to assist NGOs and rescue teams on the ground.

By Monday morning, they had set up a Discord channel to organize workflows; by Tuesday, they had 15,000 developers, designers, project managers and others from around the world build apps, including those that help find people in trouble and distribute aid where it is needed.

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“There are so many people who want to help,” said Kılıç. “It’s hard for anyone to balance their daily life and work right now, because everyone wants to try and help as much as they can.”

More than 11,000 people are thought to have died in the magnitude 7.8 quake, which occurred in the early hours of the morning, and a magnitude 7.5 aftershock a few hours later. The United Nations has warned that the actual death toll could be as high as 20,000. Turkey has declared a three-month state of emergency as local services work to recover after the tragedy.

Rescuers are still searching for survivors under collapsed buildings, but their search has been hampered by snow, rain and extreme cold.

One of Earthquake Help Project’s first tools was an app that scraped social media to find calls for help and then geo-located them, displaying them on a heatmap so responders could see where they were concentrated. The team has also built a portal and app that compiles offers of assistance, collects information for affected individuals on what to do and who to contact, and lets people report whether they are safe or need assistance.

All projects are open source, and developers have to innovate to make their tools as light as possible, due to internet connection drops in affected areas. “We use pure HTML in some of our projects to speed up page load times,” says Kılıç.

On Wednesday, Twitter, one of the organization’s main channels for distributing its work and sources of information, was reportedly blocked on several networks in Turkey. The Turkish government previously blocked social media during a political crisis.

But Kılıç said they only had about 30 minutes of outages, during which time they continued to work on Discord. He said that they would use a VPN to continue their activities if there were additional social media blocks. “Our activities will not stop if Twitter is restricted. But we may not be able to reach users who can’t access the VPN, because people see this project using social media.”

New projects are being developed all the time, as more volunteers join ideas and do openwork. But it’s impossible to direct every volunteer to a project. “Too many people applying at once to help, and we have different work styles. Sometimes it’s challenging to organize everyone with a role,” explains Kılıç.

So far, they have only focused on Turkey, but they are trying to find ways to connect with Syrian NGOs and are looking for volunteers who can help localize their projects into Arabic.

The app has received over 100,000 visits so far, and the feedback has been very encouraging. “We received a message that people were found in the rubble and were saved because of this application,” said Kılıç. “This is the real impact we were hoping for.”

Open-source technology has become a feature of disaster response over the past two decades. IT Volunteers in Sri Lanka use open source software to coordinate relief efforts after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. In 2010, online volunteers used crowd mapping software to transmit real-time needs to a public map during the earthquake in Haiti, partly using technology developed in Kenya to map violent incidents after the 2007 election. A similar tool was used in the US in responses to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In 2015, over 3,000 digital volunteers used open-source software to create maps of communities affected in the aftermath of a major earthquake in Nepal. The American Red Cross and the government of Nepal made extensive use of this information in providing relief operations.

“We’ve seen over the years the willingness of technologists to help in times of crisis,” says Amanda Levinson, co-founder of NeedList, a crisis response software company. But he added that the need was partly driven by a lack of innovation in the humanitarian system. “The traditional humanitarian and disaster relief sectors are old, locked up and unable to keep up with the pace of the crisis,” he said. “We need new solutions.”

Turkey is home to a thriving technology scene, with a large pool of startups and entrepreneurs. The Covid-19 pandemic prompted a rush of investment in the country’s technology sector, both at home and abroad, as stay-at-home orders shifted investment focus to industries such as e-commerce, delivery services, digital transformation, and online and mobile gaming.

For some of the developers who have joined the industry’s relief efforts, the motivation to help is very personal. Kılıç said that their family members and community colleagues were among the dead and injured. He admitted that it was stressful for everyone, including himself. “I couldn’t think properly, and my mind kept imagining people trapped under concrete,” he said.

But Özvataf says working on this project has helped them feel useful. “For us, for developers who are far away from the disaster zone, we don’t feel comfortable just passively listening to the news,” he said.

The current state of emergency is likely to last for weeks, and aftershocks could continue to affect Turkey and Syria for years to come. Both countries have a huge task ahead of them in rebuilding. But Kılıç and Özvataf say that the community is growing because volunteers register every hour.

“Technology is very powerful,” said Kılıç. “We can leverage millions of data points to locate those who are suffering, and we can do this in many cases before most NGOs can mobilize their next steps. If we combine technology with the work of rescue teams, we can help people much faster. With this technology, we might be able to save more lives.”

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