Imagine, Istanbul is hit by a major earth quake, magnitude 7.0 or higher. Then imagine that not only do people turn out to have been prepared, but they also know how they can help the rescue efforts effectively and save themselves and their fellow Istanbullers. Result: the number of casualties will be as low as possible. If the big earth quake that will most probably hit Istanbul within twenty years occurs tomorrow, this remains an imaginary outcome. But if nature allows more time, the picture might be not so idealised.
Earlier this week, a small group of Istanbullers, including me, made the first step in developing a system that makes it very easy for people in the city to report what’s happening where during an earthquake, where help is needed and exactly what kind,by using their cell phones, Facebook and Twitter. Let me explain what we did.
We created a fake earth quake that hit Istanbul last Monday, at 10 o’clock in the morning. We started twittering about what was happening in Istanbul. We twittered about roads twisted, fires breaking out, schools collapsing with kids in them, bus stations falling down like houses of cards, big Bosporus waves that made the coastal roads very dangerous. We tweeted about which buildings were still standing intact and about places where dead bodies were being gathered so family members could come and pick them up.
At the same time, a few people were putting all this info onto an online Istanbul map as quickly as possible. The map became covered with flags of different colours, indicating which roads, hospitals and buildings were usable, where blankets, food and water were needed, where trapped people were screaming out to be saved from under a collapsed building.
The first tweets I tweeted felt weird. Do I just have to make events up? Yes, I had to, and once you get started, it’s easy. But weird it stayed, also because of course we didn’t want to give anybody on twitter the idea that actually a disaster was happening in Istanbul. So in stead of ‘earthquake’, we used ‘party’, an after shock would be an after party. A wounded person was a guest, a severely wounded person a drunken guest. Fire became light, we turned ‘collapsed building’ into ‘club’. So we tweeted for example: ‘Very drunk little guests in school in Beyoglu’, or ‘After party on Anatolian side, panic, many guests’. And we added in Turkish, just to make sure: ThisIsATest.
After one and a half hour, the test was over. It has now been evaluated: the mapping of the events didn’t go very smoothly, and people contradicted each other: one person tweeted the E5 highway was undamaged, another tweeted it was out of use. But that’s why you have a test run, isn’t it?
Claire Berlinski, an American woman who has been living in Istanbul for years, initiated the project to get a system going that can immediately be put into operation in case an earth quake really happens. Many steps are still to come, like a test with an actual team of ‘rescue workers’ that anticipate the info given by people using twitter, and to get the participation of the major phone companies in Turkey.
Claire: ‘There are not that many Turks on twitter yet, but we use it now just to practice. In the end, we need a system with a code word, like ‘alarm’ that is short and easy to remember. The phone companies join the project, and communicate this code word, and what to do in case of an earth quake.’ As a result people will be sending phone messages out, tweets and Facebook updates with all sorts of information on what’s happening and what’s needed where, plus the code word. These are all collected and put on a real time online map, so rescue workers know where to go.
Claire is passionate about it, has been for years, but even more so since the earthquake in Haiti, where her sister was working in the UN headquarters. That building collapsed and for some time she didn’t know if her sister survived or not. She did. Claire: ‘In Haiti, Twitter and phones were also used to inform each other. What if we can get the system going before the earthquake occurs? Imagine the lives that could be saved. The authorities in Istanbul are doing absolutely nothing to prepare the city for what’s coming, so unless we start taking grassroot action now, the disaster will be bigger than it needs to be.’