Turkey-Syria earthquakes: How Twitter has helped find survivors trapped beneath the rubble

Rescue teams search for people in a destroyed building in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.
Rescue teams search for people in a destroyed building in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. Copyright The AP. All rights reserved
By Aylin Elci
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Earthquake victims took to Twitter to share their locations. A group of online volunteers mapped their addresses to help search and rescue teams.

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Hundreds of thousands of messages for help flooded social media platforms in the aftermath of the early morning earthquake that shook Turkey and Syria on Monday.

"Please send help, we’re alive, here’s our address," some survivors wrote, while other messages were posted on behalf of those still trapped under the rubble.

According to online data platfom Statista, 16.1 million people used Twitter in Turkey as of January 2022, making it the seventh largest country in terms of the most active users on the social media platform.

By the time a second powerful earthquake hit the same area in the early afternoon, hundreds of Turkish developers, coders, and online volunteers had already organised themselves on Discord to set up open-source projects using data from social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.

"Disaster management should not be so dependent on the private sector, but the shortcomings in crisis management have forced people to do so," said Sedat Kapanoğlu, one of Turkey’s best-known coders and a supporter of Açık Yazılım Ağı (Open Software Network) group which now counts over 21,000 volunteers in its ranks.

Afetharita.com
Afetharita.com maps the addresses that require search and rescue operations as per social media posts.Afetharita.com

One of the projects the tech volunteers put together is Afetharita.com - literally “disaster map” - which uses artificial intelligence to visualise assistance requests posted on social media.

The team were, however, hampered by restrictions from Twitter’s API (an interface that allows two softwares to communicate with another). Kapanoğlu made a direct request to Elon Musk to open up access to it but it was made redundant thanks to a wave of popular support for the map project.

“We wrote to Elon Musk about Twitter’s API, but then we were approached by people who [offered their extended API access], so we did not need any extra help from Musk,” says Furkan Kılıç, one of the main developers behind the Open Software Network.

According to the latest official numbers, around 22,000 people have died so far following the two earthquakes, and with the cold winter weather, the chances of more survivors being found alive in the rubble are dwindling.

'We don't know how many lives were saved'

While some have complained on social media about the slow response of the government’s rescue agency, afetharita.com shared its data with NGOs so they could offer search and rescue in the right locations.

"This data can be shared with the state institutions too if they ask," says Kılıç. But he’s also aware that a map alone can’t save lives.:

"We don't know how many lives were saved with this map, the most it can do is show location information to rescue teams," he told Euronews Next.

"Therefore, we don’t think it’s right to say that we saved X number of people. Our goal, just like everyone else, is to try to help people who need help there as much as we can".

The Turkish government’s decision to temporarily block Twitter on Wednesday because of "disinformation concerns" was met with disbelief among the platform’s users.

According to Kapanoğlu, software gathering and compiling data from Twitter was also disrupted by the move.

"Earthquake victims who only had Twitter installed on their phones were making their voices heard there," he said.

"Calls for help from those who did not use Twitter and did not have followers were transferred to Twitter and made visible from there. All of the rescue operations that used Twitter were paused as long as the platform was blocked".

Once the map will no longer be useful to search and rescue efforts, the data will be passed onto relevant institutions and removed from the website.

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But, the team of volunteer developers are keen to sharpen their skills and continue developing open-source projects.

"Our aim is to build systems that can work under any kind of load for NGOs and state institutions in the event of a possible disaster, which I hope we will never experience again and never need to use," said Kılıç.

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