Here’s a startup pitch: It’s like Waze, but for civil wars

My app says they’re shooting up there.
My app says they’re shooting up there.
Image: Reuters/Omar Ibrahim
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In most other places in the world, crowdsourcing technology is being used to map everyday complications like traffic and weather. Apps like Waze (acquired recently by Google) and Weathermob allow users to help create up-to-the-minute databases of conditions on the ground by merely sharing information about their local commute. But in Lebanon, where violence and armed clashes are increasingly threatening citizens’ daily commutes—thanks partly to the overspill of refugees from the conflict in neighboring Syria—it’s being used to map gunfire.

Lebanese engineer Firas Wazneh is currently seeking funding for a crowdsourcing app that will help local Lebanese side-step violence, by identifying and triangulating shootings, reports the Financial Times (paywall). The app, “Way to Safety,” will let its users record and submit sounds of gunfire, which the service will then identify (and distinguish from other kinds of bangs, like fireworks) using a sound database, and triangulate on a map. The result, hopefully, would be an up-to-date map showing which roads and neighborhoods they should avoid. The app will be able to determine the location of shooters and type of weapon being used in under 30 seconds, Wazneh told media startup Vocativ. It will be free for citizens of “hot zones,” where violence is more prevalent.

The basic idea and technology behind Wazneh’s app isn’t entirely different from one developed earlier this year at Vanderbilt University’s Institute of Software Integrated Systems in the US. The system uses a group of microphones (which could be fitted into a platoon of soldiers’ helmets, for instance) to catch the sounds of gunfire, and an app on an Android-based smartphone automatically pulls up a map pinpointing the shooter’s location, according to Wired. The difference is that where the US military version automatically fields and processes sounds—and therefore requires an independent set of microphones—Wazneh’s app requires that users record and submit them, but using the microphones in their own phones.

For the service to work, of course, it depends on enough people using it regularly. And even for Lebanese, who are well used to gunfire, their first thought on hearing it may not be to pull out their smartphones and wave them in the air. But if the app does take off it would an inspiring example of how an entrepreneur with a few thousand dollars in funding can compete with the mighty research budgets of the US military.