An anti-Assad protester holds a machine gun durig a protest in Idlib, Syria, via Flickr
The mobile app arena is a glut of games, social media extensions, photographic filters, and a range of other curiosities. If an app has any practical utility, it tends to be a convenience solution, like the crowd-sourced, real-time traffic app Waze. But Lebanese telecommunications engineer Firas Wazneh has anything to say about it, this will change. He is currently developing Way to Safety, an Android app that would help civilians steer clear of gunfire in urban warfare environments.
According to Wazneh's Zoomal crowdfunding page, Way to Safety is "an application that uses the crowd-infrastructure i.e. your mobiles, laptops and PCs to identify the source location of sniper and gun shots and show you the way to safety." It would use GPS and wi-fi positioning to pinpoint the location of gunfire in urban warfare environments.
"Within 30 seconds after a shot is fired, the application will determine the source location of the shooter, the direction he was aiming at, the type and caliber of the weapon used and the number of bullets fired," reads the introduction. "This data will be sent to the nearby residents for free and we will also send it to the army, paramedics, press."
Wazneh admits that the technology isn't new. Chicago, for instance, implemented a similar gunfire positioning system in 2012 call ShotSpotter. The only problem is this type of city-wide system can be expensive and logistically problematic. A city contractor would have to set up all of the equipment and ensure constant connectivity.
Wazneh's Way to Safety app, on the other hand, wouldn't necessitate city expenditures and logistics. The only hardware required would be at least 10 to 20 smartphone users within a 1.5 km radius. By using user's microphones to catch the gunfire and matching it with users' GPS and location data, Wazneh says Way to Safety could triangulate gunfire to 25 meters. In the future, the app could also be used to identify rocket fire and trajectory.
"Basically, using machine learning we teach the system the gunfire sounds and their variants," Wazneh said. "We must also take into account echoes, which may cost us accuracy. The use of different types of cell phones with different characteristics will cost us accuracy as well, but what we lack in quality we compensate in quantity. In other words, the more users we have, the more accurate we become."
In countries and regions plagued by sectarian violence and revolution, is there enough wi-fi connectivity and smartphone users in the first place to make Wazneh's vision work? While a given area may have 10 to 20 Android users running Way to Safety, wi-fi and cell service could be, at best, spotty—or, worse, in a state of near total blackout.
For example, Syria's largest city, Aleppo, went dark when Turk Telecom's internet and mobile service dropped out two days ago. This was likely a result of damage to the city's telecommunications infrastructure. And as we saw in Egypt in 2011, the Hosni Mubarak regime likely shut down the country's internet service to limit rebel communications. Wazneh's Way to Safety app would be most useful in such times, but only with a steady wi-fi or mobile connection.
Wazneh concedes that this is a problem in implementing Way to Safety. "If the Internet is down, there are no communications, and we won't be able to triangulate gunfire," he said. "That said, even in areas where warfare hasn't yet ignited, like Lebanon, there is a lot of celebratory gunfire and actual combat that may occur every once and a while, and those are our [other] targets."
Although the project's development is proceeding slowly until it receives proper funding, Wazneh said that Way to Safety has moved past theory. He and the developers have begun testing the technology, and a proof of concept should be ready by the summer of 2014. He said that when it's ready, he plans on pushing it in the US.
"After developing the app, my main plan is to target the US and Brazil, which have 10,000-30,000 deaths per year from direct gunfire," Wazneh said. "Using the app, which will run in the background, will mean that if you ever hear a shot, you will know where it came from in a matter of seconds, allowing you to maneuver your way to safety."