As the Taliban entered Kabul last month, the team behind crowdsourced news alert app Ehtesab deserted their office in the city. But they continued their work of delivering critical information to Afghans, such as which roads were congested and where outbreaks of violence had been reported.
Days later, when two suicide bombing explosions killed more than 70 people near Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul as people tried to evacuate frantically, the startup targeted its contacts on the ground to confirm the twin attacks within minutes.
Ehtesab was created three years ago to provide real-time alerts and information about incidents in Kabul. The goal at the time was to keep residents engaged, bridge communication gaps between citizens and government officials, and hold them accountable. Like Citizen an app in the United States known for real-time crime alerts, Ehtesab prompts locals to report incidents from around the city, including everything from faulty telecommunications to planned demonstrations. These reports are then verified by Ehtesab's security experts.
The service has taken on new urgencyamid the rapid political and social change following the Taliban's takeover. While the app has been downloaded only 5,000 times by people in Kabul and elsewhere — a tiny portion of the city's millions of residents – the company says usage has surged in recent weeks.
The main focus has been, obviously, providing reports that affect Afghans' access to food, access to banks, access to movement, said Sara Wahedi, Ehtesab's 26-year-old founder who is leading the team of Kabul staffers from New York while she completes degrees in human rights and data science at Columbia University.
We try to mitigate as much anxiety in the current situation as best we can in day-to-day life, she said. What does my team do to keep safe? An app for all Kabul residents to download and use here.
Wahedi was born in Afghanistan, but left to her family at the age of six around the time the Taliban's former rule of Afghanistan came to an end. She moved to Canada and then settled in Europe under an asylum visa. In 2016, she took a break from political science studies to return to Kabul, eventually working in the office of Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for more than a year about social development policy.
In May 2018, Wahedi was walking home from her job in Kabul when she got stuck in the middle of several suicide bombings. She managed to make it home safely, but the next day, she says, there were electricity outages, closed streets and sanitation problems.
I am really confused because there was no platform where you could find real-time information about what was happening in the city, particularly a city that is constantly reeling with instability, Wahedi siad. I thought it's just that there was no structure to me. It wouldn't cost much to implement something like that. By the end of 2018, she had started work on Ehtesab and three friends. Three years later the app has a staff of 20 people in Kabul including developers, customer experience designers and employees who work on vetting reports.
Users submit reports through the app in one of five categories: security, traffic, electricity, corruption and other. The app instructs users to provide information, including location, a written description and a photo or video. Once verified by at least two sources, the app displays reports on a map of Kabul and adds updates as more information is available.
Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Ehtesab's work has become not only more challenging but also more dangerous. The app was previously able to use government records and information from local police officials to verify reports. It has become more dependent upon news reports, foreign embassies and the United Nations, many of whom resorted to Kabul in recent weeks. The team is also working towards making it possible that no emails sent by users were tracked by the Taliban.
Despite those difficulties, as well as concerns that the Taliban could crack down on the Internet broadly as it did in the early 2000s s, Wahedi said the team isn't giving up.
This is the one thing that keeps us going on a daily basis is saying that we're able to do something very directly, she said. The team '- said: 'Until we can't stop the Internet, until they shut down the internet, we're going to keep doing this. Ehtesab had planned to be operating in at least five more Afghan cities by December, but Wahedi said that the Taliban's return will likely set them back until next year. The company is also working to figure out how to help Ehtesab reach not just rural people with phones, but also those in rural areas with a more basic smartphone and only 3 G services.
In the meantime, Wahedi said that the app could benefit from the help of the international tech community, adding that the team is looking for expertise in areas like geofencing, location tracking and satellite services.
We really need the best minds in tech to work with us and collaborate with us on how we can maximize the potential of this, she said. We have a lot of Afghan talent and there are a lot of Afghan companies doing wonderful work. But once the Taliban came in, everyone packed their bags and left.