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SOS Tech: How Apps Are Being Designed for War Zones

Yahoo Tech

This post comes courtesy of Fueled, a mobile design and development company based in New York and London. You can read more posts like it at the Fueled blog.

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.

The U.S. military also is increasingly looking to app developers for solutions to problems that emerge during war. Earlier this year, U.S. company AnthroTronix developed DANA (Defense Automated Neurocognitive Assessment), an app that helps detect post-traumatic stress disorder or brain damage in soldiers. Running on Android, it’s a simple game that records answers, response time, and even the movement of the user via the phone’s built-in sensors, to help a medical professional diagnose a patient in the absence of brain scanning machines.

While DANA was initially developed for the military, it’s being tested in rehabilitation centers, hospitals and by the pharmaceutical industry, which have recognized the app’s potential to help caregivers look after friends and relatives.

The Dana system. (Anthrotronix)

Hassan’s I Am Alive app, meanwhile, has also found potential in the mainstream. Hassan reports she has received emails from users outside of conflict zones using the app to tell others they have landed safely after long-haul flights.

A number of hackathons have also emerged to help develop problem-solving apps targeted for those trapped in war zones. The Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University in the U.S. is challenging developers to come up with a mechanism that can help people report sightings of land mines via their smartphones, for example.

With recent reports from the U.N. suggesting that, for the first time since the Second World War, the number of displaced people worldwide through conflict has topped 50 million, innovation in this area has never been more necessary. What will be the next inventions to come from this urgency, and how might they be adopted for widespread use?

Matt Hussey is a writer for Fueled, a mobile development company based in New York and London. Twice nominated as New Journalist of the Year, he has written for Wired, ShortList, FHM, Men’s Health GQ and the FT. He specialises in future tech and trends. You can follow him on Twitter.