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Tech Volunteers Rush to Save Turkey’s Earthquake Survivors

Furkan Kılıç and Eser Özvataf woke in Istanbul on the morning of February 6 to news of the earthquake that had left huge areas of Southeast Turkey and western Syria in ruins. The scenes of destruction were overwhelming at first. “We were devastated over what was happening in our country,” Kılıç says. “It was hard to process what happened.”

But soon the pair got to work. Kılıç is the founding engineer and Özvataf the CTO of software startup Datapad. Both are well-known members of the Turkish tech scene—Özvataf was previously an engineering director for Getir, Turkey’s first decacorn—and between them they have nearly three decades of experience in the industry. They began mobilizing colleagues over Twitter, and within hours they had brought together a rapid response movement, dubbed simply “Earthquake Help Project,” bootstrapping tech to help NGOs and rescue teams on the ground.

By late Monday morning, they had set up a Discord channel to organize workstreams; by Tuesday, they had 15,000 developers, designers, project managers, and others from around the globe to build applications, including those that are helping locate people in distress and distribute aid where it’s needed.

“There were so many people wanting to help,” Kılıç says. “It’s hard for anyone to balance their life and their day jobs right now, as everyone wants to try and help as much as possible.”

More than 11,000 people are thought to have been killed in the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, which struck in the early hours of the morning, and a 7.5-magnitude aftershock a few hours later. The UN 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 in the aftermath of the tragedy.

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

One of Earthquake Help Project’s first tools was an application that scrapes social media to find calls for help and then geolocates them, displaying them on a heat map so responders can see where they are concentrated. The team has also built portals and applications that collate offers of assistance, collect information for affected individuals on what to do and who to contact, and let people report whether they’re safe or need help. 

All of the projects are open source, and the developers are having to innovate to make their tools as lightweight as possible, since internet connections have been disrupted in the affected areas. “We are using pure HTML in some of our projects to speed up the loading page time,” Kılıç says. 

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

But Kılıç says they only experienced an outage for around 30 minutes, during which time they continued to work using Discord. He says that they’ll use a VPN to continue their activities if there are additional social media blocks. “Our activities will not be stopped if Twitter is restricted. But we may not be able to reach users who cannot access a VPN, because people see these projects using social media.” 

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New projects are being developed all the time, as more volunteers join with ideas and take on open tasks. But it’s not possible to direct every volunteer to a project. “Too many people applied at once to help, and we have different working styles. It’s been challenging at times to organize everyone with a role,” explains Kılıç. 

So far, they’re only focusing on Turkey, but they are trying to figure out how to connect with Syrian NGOs and are looking to onboard volunteers who can help localize their projects into Arabic. 

The applications have received over 100,000 visits so far, and the feedback has been encouraging. “We receive messages that people are being found in rubble and saved because of these applications,” Kılıç says. “This is the real impact we had hoped for.”

Open-sourced tech has become a feature of disaster response over the past two decades. IT volunteers in Sri Lanka used open source software to coordinate relief efforts following the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. In 2010, online volunteers used crowd-mapping software to text real-time needs onto public maps during the earthquake in Haiti, partly using technology developed in Kenya to map incidents of post-election violence in 2007. Similar tools were used in the US in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In 2015, more than 3,000 digital volunteers used open source software to create maps of affected communities after a huge earthquake in Nepal. The American Red Cross and the Nepali government used the information extensively in delivering relief operations.

“We have seen over the years the willingness of technologists to help when a crisis hits,” says Amanda Levinson, the cofounder of NeedsList, a crisis response software company. But she adds that the need is partly driven by an absence of innovation in the humanitarian system. “The traditional humanitarian and disaster relief sectors are aging, siloed, and cannot keep up with the pace of crises,” she says. “We need new solutions.”

Turkey is home to a flourishing tech scene, with a large pool of startups and entrepreneurs. The Covid-19 pandemic drove a rush of investment in the country’s technology sector, domestically and internationally, as stay-at-home orders shifted investment focus to industries like ecommerce, delivery services, digital transformation, and online and mobile gaming.

For some of the developers who have joined the industry’s aid effort, the motivation to help is deeply personal. Kılıç says that members of their colleagues’ families and communities are among the dead and injured. He admits that it’s been stressful for everyone, including himself. “I can’t think properly, and my mind is constantly on the idea of people being stuck under concrete,” he says.

But Özvataf says working on these projects has helped them to feel useful. “For us, for the developers who are far away from the disaster zones, we did not feel comfortable just listening to the news passively,” he says. 

The current emergency is likely to go on for weeks, and aftershocks may 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 the community is growing as volunteers sign up with each passing hour.

“Technology is incredibly powerful,” Kılıç says. “We can leverage millions of data points to find the locations of those suffering, and we can do this in most cases before most NGOs can mobilize their next step. If we combine technology with the work of rescue teams, we can help people faster. With this tech, we may end up saving more lives.”

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