EARLY WARNING SYSTEM

Hala, a Syrian war tech that could save lives in Cape’s killing fields

By Marianne Thamm 15 July 2019
Caption
Volunteers of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, extinguish a fire after a bombing in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, late 17 November 2016. EPA/MOHAMMED BADRA

While predatory governments employ remote technology to inflict mass casualties, civilians in war-torn Syria are saving lives using simple existing technology and connectivity. Could a similar network be effective in the violence-torn Cape Flats and other crime-ridden areas?

Three years ago, the City of Cape Town, at a cost of R32-million, rolled out the US gunshot detection technology, ShotSpotter, in gang-ridden Hanover Park and Manenberg. The system is aimed not necessarily at protecting citizens, but assisting law enforcement to respond to outbreaks of violence and to act swiftly.

In 2017, presenting its annual report to the Western Cape standing committee on community safety, Metro police explained that while 3,404 gunshots had been detected in 1,140 incidents, and that 20 people had been injured, only nine suspects had been arrested.

The system has clearly failed, although JP Smith, the mayoral committee member for safety and security, has intimated the city will continue to use the system and to roll it out to other areas in the grip of a violent gang turf war.

Considering the shocking number of violence-related deaths and injuries in Cape Town during the first six months of this year – almost 2,000 – the technology is clearly failing citizens. Communities also no longer trust the police, who themselves have been implicated in working alongside criminals and the selling of guns to gangsters.

Cape Town is facing a humanitarian crisis while authorities and politicians fiddle in boardrooms.

But there are ways that communities under threat from either predatory governments or criminals can defend themselves and prevent casualties, using simple existing technologies and networks.

In June 2019, Daily Maverick interviewed two tech entrepreneurs and developers, John Jaeger and David Levin, who, together with a Syrian hacker, developed the Hala System that uses a smartphone app that serves as an early-warning system and has saved hundreds of lives in the Syrian conflict.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2012 about 500,000 Syrians have been killed while six million have fled the country. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s air-strikes on rebel-held territories and at least 6,200 civilians have been killed in US and coalition forces’ action against ISIS.

The Hala Systems went live in 2016, scraping social media for information on bombings and sharing this to social media accounts. It reached 2.3 million vulnerable people in Syria and Yemen.

The system can also be used for prosecution purposes as it logs aircraft that take off from Syrian airbases and correlates their routes with air-strikes on cities, towns and suburbs.

The impact of this is that we estimate a mean reduction of between 20 and 30% of fatalities, saving hundreds of lives,” Jaeger told Daily Maverick.

The data, Jaeger added, provides reliable evidence of mass atrocities in the event of a tribunal.

The relevance of using this type of technology in Cape Town, for example, is that it would empower communities to protect residents when gang warfare breaks out without having to rely on law enforcement.

Within minutes, information can be circulated, assisting those who might get caught in the crossfire to identify where skirmishes are taking place and to where they might move.

In 2011, Syrian civilians began to take it upon themselves to warn each other of air-strikes. Citizens who witnessed a Syrian plane taking off from an airbase would track the direction it flew and warn towns up ahead.

This was done mostly through walkie-talkies and WhatsApp groups and was conducted in an ad hoc manner. While old-fashioned sirens existed, these were often disabled by power cuts.

The sirens were very clunky and noisy and did not have the potential impact. It was then that we understood the potential of technology to augment a civilian response to military action,” said Jaeger.

People who did not have a sense of agency saw that technology could have a self-protective effect.

Jaeger had worked as a diplomat in the Middle East for the US State Department in 2012, a year after the “Arab Spring” in the region. Based in Istanbul, Turkey, Jaeger found himself consulting with the medical community attempting to deal with the effects of the war.

The war itself, he understood, could not be stopped but the number of deaths and injuries could be reduced.

It was then that the idea of creating a warning system for civilians ahead of an attack was born, but after failing to convince the State Department to invest in the project Jaeger resigned. The crucial few minutes gained after having been alerted to potential danger allowed citizens to move to places of safety, often underground bunkers.

Jaeger linked up with David Levin, founder of Refugee Open Ware, an organisation aimed at using technology for beneficial purposes in violence-torn regions of the world and that was based in Jordan

Levin was developing 3-D printed prosthetics for war victims when a Syrian activist connected him with Jaeger.

In 2015 Levin and Jaeger teamed up with a Syrian coder (alias Murad) who had been looking at ways of developing an early-warning system for Assad’s air-strikes. It was Murad’s idea to connect people on the ground.

Raising capital proved challenging and with little appetite for a project that would not bring billions in return, Levin and Jaeger invested their own funds in the project. Seed funding was secured from physicist Dr Evan Malone, founder of NextFab Studio.

In June 2019, Marc Cuban, a US businessman and investor, announced he was investing $1-million in Hala Systems, which intends to expand to other conflict zones in the world where citizens are required to defend themselves.

Hala was developed along with motion sensors placed on buildings in rebel-held areas and was soon rapidly deployed in conjunction with the White Helmets, a Syrian search and rescue group, radio stations and hospitals and medical centres.

Connectivity in war-torn Syria has not been affected as the signal is accessed from Turkey while the software is stored in a “cloud”.

Hala has since developed a second product, called Insight, which it describes as “a real-time analysis portal providing an interface to data from Hala’s sensors, human observers, and strategic partners, along with information from open media”.

This data is “hashed” on the Ethereum blockchain, “which acts as a transparent ledger for data integrity. Through innovative technology, we aim to reduce harm, increase security, and stabilise communities.”

With the increasing failure of governments and law enforcement agencies to protect the rights and lives of citizens, the next best thing we can do is learn to protect ourselves using existing AI and technology. Hala provides an existing glimmer of hope. DM

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