Afghans create app that provides crisis alerts to Kabul residents amid Taliban takeover

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Afghans create app that provides crisis alerts to Kabul residents amid Taliban takeover

A day before the Taliban took control of Kabul, 26-year-old Sara Wahedi, founder of the Afghan startup Ehtesab, instructed her team to take what they need from the office and be prepared to work remotely for as long as possible.  

Ehtesab launched in 2020 and is like the popular American public safety app Citizen, which monitors 911 activity and sends security alerts to users in the area. Wahedi starts classes at Columbia University in the fall but the rest of the team is still in Kabul and working to keep the company alive with her support from abroad.

“I told the team this is your app, you need to manage it, you need to take care of it,” Wahedi told CBS News. The 20 members of the team still in Kabul are made up of software engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, and community activists. They are all under 25 and were educated in Afghanistan.

“I am proud of this because it is 100% Afghan led,” Wahedi said, adding that the company is in the process of moving its servers to the United States so it can remain operational under Taliban rule. “We’re putting all the parameters we can to make sure that the team is not visible but of course they are terrified,” she added.

Wahedi said she’s been trying to find ways to get her team out of Kabul but also acknowledged the importance of the service they are providing to a city of more than 4 million residents. The app, which is available on Android and Apple devices, sends streamlined and verified security notifications to users in Kabul. It provides alerts on explosions, gunfire, roadblocks, electricity outages and other issues in the city.

The concept of Ehtesab was inspired by Citizen, Wahedi said, and the two sides are expected to meet in the coming days. A spokesperson for Citizen confirmed to CBS News that it is in the process of connecting with Wahedi about her work.

Wahedi said she wanted the interface of her product to look and feel user friendly. The color scheme of Ehtesab’s interface is purposely lighter so the alerts and push notifications don’t add stress to the already chaotic lives of the users in Kabul.

Every security alert that appears on Ehtesab is verified by at least two sources and push notifications that are sent directly to users must be verified by at least three sources, Wahedi said. The company is leaning on its contacts at larger nonprofits, journalists, and local community leaders to verify the information before it is published. That task, which was a challenge to begin with, has become even more daunting with the Taliban in control.

The alerts are slightly delayed now but Wahedi said she’s willing to sacrifice the extra time for the sake of accuracy. “We are still so passionate about our work, but we do want to take it to the next level,” she said.

Despite the setbacks, Ehtesab has spiked in popularity recently and is averaging more than 500 downloads a week on the Android platform, according to Wahedi. She added that her team is currently unable to look at the data for the iOS platform because their equipment is locked up in the office.

The team was in the process of making significant updates to the app when it was forced to evacuate its office in Kabul. “It was like a movie scene,” Wahedi said, recalling reports that indicated Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had abandoned the country while Taliban fighters besieged the capital.

“Everyone just dropped their stuff that day, we were literally about to press submit for an iOS update on the app,” Wahedi said. “Now all of our equipment, everything is in the office, just locked up and left behind within a couple of hours of notice.”

Wahedi and her family first left Afghanistan two decades ago. They spent time as refugees in Russia, Poland and several other European countries, she said, adding that they were also once deported from the U.S after the family’s asylum case was denied. The Wahedis eventually settled in Vancouver.

But after one year of college, she said she dropped out and returned to Afghanistan for a research internship with the Office of the President in 2016. “I have always been a very intense patriot,” Wahedi said. “My mom hated that because she was quite traumatized by Afghanistan and wanted me to let it go but I couldn’t.”

The internship turned into a full-time job and from 2017 to 2019, Wahedi said she worked with Ghani’s office on social development projects, including the reintegration of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran.

Ehtesab, which is a combination of Dari and Pastho words and has a connotation of accountability, started after Wahedi was nearly killed in a suicide bombing attack while walking home from the presidential palace in May of 2018. The city went into lockdown for 12 hours and the flow of credible information from reliable sources was limited, Wahedi said.

“The next morning, I was really upset, and I was wondering what the hell happened,” Wahedi said. The country lacked a central reporting system where residents could communicate emergency issues and ask for government support. “The Ministry of Interior had a 311 number, and they were collating reports but for city services, fire, and sanitation there was no streamlined process,” she added.

Her team commissioned a survey of nearly 1,000 Kabul residents between ages 18 and 40 – the ones most likely to own a smartphone – and found that the majority wanted credible information on security incidents.

After the app initially launched, Wahedi said the most common feedback she received from users was that the credible information about security risks alleviated anxieties. Many Afghans still rely on social media reports and word of mouth from family and friends to figure out which areas of the city are safe. The service has become even more crucial with the country under Taliban control.

Wahedi said she hopes to keep building the platform so it can serve as a place that documents the Taliban’s war crimes and abuse of women and journalists. She said she’s been approached by representatives of Citizen to talk about how the two sides can collaborate. A spokesperson for Citizen confirmed to CBS News the two sides are in touch and working to schedule a meeting. 

“I want to do whatever I can to hold the Taliban accountable,” Wahedi said. “They can terrorize people, they can terrorize physical beings, but you know they have no match for technology,” she added.