Here’s the hackers’ move in the war against terrorism
It’s the story of a group of people who met up over beers to have a quick chat about business, but serendipitously came up with a potentially groundbreaking solution to one of the hardest global problems, and turned it into an actual product without setting up a company, closing a seed round, or building buzz.
Reddish 6PM sunbeams popped your own work bubble and landed on your desk when you realized it was time to finally leave the office.
You closed your Mac, sipped the last gulp of your shabbily cold coffee, threw a quick “see-ya” to the colleagues, and jumped in the elevator.
Riding down, you were mentally djing all the songs you knew to finally pick the one that would best suit the evening urban slowdown.
By the time you hit the ground floor, you thought you had it all figured out: the work was done, the evening plans were set, and the song started to buzz a well-known rhythm.
You walked out of the building.
And then you heard the first alarm…
It was a screeching, thoughts-interrupting noise.
And then came the second alarm.
And then the third.
At this point, it was not just three random alarms.
It was a pattern and you knew that, although at first you didn’t want to admit that to yourself.
The emergency symphony created by the interference of the alarm soundwaves also seemed to start to interfere with your life in an unapologetic way.
Then you launched that multithreading of possible scenarios and explanations in your head, the process we all know so well.
You raced through all those combinations of possible why’s, where’s, what’s, who’s, and when’s just to realize that the search space lacks a sensible scenario of what could have happened.
Which fired your anxiety through the roof…
You started to sense that the volcano of panic was becoming active in yourself.
The street neons were becoming more and more unbearable by the second.
As you were prepping your mindfulness toolbox to zen yourself out again, your phone was waterfalled with tens of messages from your friends.
Then came the phone calls that enforced the screeching alarms even further.
The meta-message of all this insanity?
Are you fucking alive?!
You are in the middle of a giant city.
You are unable to think clearly.
Fear eliminates trust towards strangers, but since emotions hold the steering wheel, you jump into the bandwagon, and run wherever other people are running.
Yes, you are in the middle of the serious attack in your city.
Every single person, including authorities, has a very vague idea of what to do next.
All those gadgets you’re covered with instantly stop meaning anything.
Your greatest wish at this point is to do a giant hug encompassing all your friends and relatives and make sure they stay healthy and cheerful.
But you can’t do that.
So the powerlessness creeps in.
The damn, hard-core powerlessness that drains you of hope.
All you can do is wait.
But you fucking hate waiting.
You want to act, to fight, to help, to survive. And do all that in a smart, controlled way, because you know that panic never breeds anything good.
Sounds impossible in that insane environment you found yourself in?
It shouldn’t. Technology can help solving this problem.
So let’s pause the story for a while and talk about the solution. Let’s stop and think how the technology can decrease the scale of terrorist attacks.
The 6 Steps to Zen
A few months ago, we’ve launched a tiny startup group in Warsaw, Poland called Dreamers and Executors.
The goal was simple: to grow, learn and create interesting stuff together. The group consists both of students and early professionals.
We were sitting at one of our weekly meetups, when we heard about the horrible Paris attacks.
We’re not a formalized (or profit-driven) group, so we changed the meeting agenda on the spot and naturally started discussing how we can contribute to solving the problem of terrorism.
At first, the idea that we can do anything on our own sounded strikingly ridiculous, but we didn’t let that stop us from going forward.
Most of us went home and forgot about all wise solutions we’ve ideated, but one of our members — Filip Stachura — had enough determination to finish the work completely on his own and built the first iteration of a tool that can potentially save lives in the future.
Actually, Filip submitted his solution to the Bihapi competition in order to convince authorities to implement the system for the city of Warsaw.
Before we show you the tool itself, we want to present the chain of reasoning that justifies the solution.
We called this list The 6 Steps To Zen and we invite others to expand it and build upon it.
Here it is:
- Authorities have information and operational advantage over attackers. CCTVs are up 24/7 and officers are too when something bad happens. In addition, there’s a ton of people tweeting whenever they can sense the danger (as Paris attacks showed).
- Terrorist attacks come in series; there are on average 4–5 attacks per one hit.
- Authorities can use (1) to estimate the chances that the next attack in the series happens at a given location.
- Coupling (3) with the knowledge of crisis management can help authorities divide people into threatened and safe.
- Threatened people from (4), segmented by location (and therefore by the danger level), are instructed to move to safe locations via smartphone notifications (in a manner that is unpredictable to the outside agents of course).
- Safe people from (4) are instructed to stay where they are and don’t add up to the general panic because they know for sure that they are safe at the moment.
During the ideation meetup we’ve concluded that the biggest potential barrier to the end user adoption of the tool lies in the 5th point. The reason, we think, is that not many people would like to download a separate app just in case something really bad happens one day in the future.
Therefore, we decided to simply to build a Twitter client and use the wealth of data that this service provides.
Here’s how the tool works:
It doesn’t need too much explanation, but what’s really important is that it has the potential to realize all of the strategic points listed above.
First, it lets the authorities detect potential threats.
Secondly, it allows them to select the endangered areas, which in itself is the realisation of the 3rd and 4th point from the list above.
And finally, the authorities can instruct threatened people to move to a safe location simply by sending direct notifications to their Twitter accounts.
Although at this point we only source data from Twitter, the tool has the infrastructure in place to gather data from many different sources, including legacy systems.
Not to mention that some classification ML algorithms can take this system to the next level.
We’ve done a quick research on the legacy solutions, which directed us at a massive body of research called catastrophe modelling.
Here’s the catastrophe modelling 101 (source):
Catastrophe modelling is used to assess the likelihood that disasters will occur, the potential consequences if they occur, and the distribution of the absolute and relative risk in different places and at different times. It has been successfully applied to study the risks of hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and wind damage. After September 11, 2001, several firms with expertise in modeling catastrophes began modeling terrorism losses. These models are used by the insurance industry to assess the possible losses in a specific area where insurance policies may be held or from attacks on properties that may be insured.
In short, implementing the solutions of catastrophe modelling in this system can turn in into an extremely powerful tool.
Now let’s come back to the story.
The Happy End
It was 120 seconds of waiting, but it felt like an hour.
Your heart was racing and so was your finger on the smartphone screen of your Facebook app.
But then something strange happened.
All those Facebook messaging threads you had started went into the background mode once you saw a strange Twitter notification, which was sent from the official police account directly to yourself.
The police informed you to move to the building at a given address.
It was sent via our system and this little piece of information has the potential to save your life.
How could that be possible?
The authorities simply circled the endangered area via our tool, and instructed the Twitter users that published attack-related tweets in that area to move to another safe place.
Contribute to this project
As said above, this project was created in an informal group called Dreamers & Executors.
Let’s make the world a safer place together!
Show your support by commenting or recommending this article.
If you want to try out this system for your own city or contribute to the further developments, just shoot us an e-mail at dae.community at gmail.com.
Join our group
If you’re based in Warsaw and want to learn, grow, and build interesting stuff with us, click here and join us.
Follow the progress of our group
Follow us here on Medium and on Twitter to get latest insights about our projects.
Thanks for taking your time to read this article. We did our best.
[Update, 19.II.2016] Also many thanks to Meetup HQ for featuring our group on Facebook and Twitter! For the record, here’s a printscreen: