FOCUS on social media mobilization: Syrian Early Warning System

By Natalie Sherman
Staff Writer

In Syria, a few minutes warning can be the difference between life and death. Hala Systems, the creators of Sentry, have given Syrians the gift of time.

Sentry is a system that alerts users when an airstrike is about to occur via numerous messaging services, reports The Washington Post. These alerts have saved many lives by giving Syrians the advanced warning they need to seek shelter when it spots a plane heading their way.

According to the Washington Post, Sentry has a network of plane spotters located in crucial areas nearby, such as airstrips or opposition-held territory, who can report what they are seeing in real time. Many of the veteran spotters are able to give information on whether the planes are Russian or Syrian, and the possibility that they are carrying chemical weapons.

Acoustic sensors that can collect data on the speed an aircraft is traveling supplement the information provided by the human spotters. These are crucial in determining how much time civilians have to take cover and where volunteer organizations, such as the white helmets, can position themselves to help as many people as possible.

During World War II, farmers in rural areas created an ad-hoc system of plane spotting. When they saw German Luftwaffe planes, they called ahead to London and gave advanced warning that allowed civilians to seek shelter ahead of a bombardment. Now, as the war in Syria draws closer to its eighth year, Hala Systems is taking the old concept of spotting planes and adding analytical precision to save as many lives as they can through social media.

Hala Systems’ three founders come from vastly different backgrounds but share their desire to curb the senseless violence of the Syrian civil war. Sentry was originally the brainchild of John Jaeger, described by Wired as a “Hacker turned government technologist.” Jaeger felt disillusioned with his work in the State Department and his own perceived inability to make any difference in the devolving situation in Syria.

Jaeger teamed up with Dave Levin, an entrepreneur and former employee of the United Nations Global Compact to bring his idea to life. The third member of their team, who goes only by Murad for safety concerns, is a Syrian coder who saw the violence and upheaval in his country firsthand and chose to use his skills to intercede.

The three men looked to the ad hoc plane spotting that the White Helmets had started and knew they could create a larger network of spotters to report the movements of planes and save more lives through social media. With every advancement of Sentry’s technology, the Hala team hopes to increase the technology’s automated capabilities in order to improve their accuracy.

In the beginning stages of Sentry, Jaeger, Levin, and Murad often worked ninety or more hours a week. According to Wired, Murad once worked three days without sleeping. Jaeger remarked that “One family being saved. It was all worth it.” Sentry has gone on to save countless more lives, and Hala Systems has set their sights on creating new technologies in addition to improving Sentry itself. Air raid sirens were originally turned on manually, but Hala created technology that allowed sirens to be turned on remotely from Sentry.

In addition to preventing thousands of casualties, Sentry has given civilians stuck in the middle of the violence a fighting chance. As John Jaeger told Telegraph, “For a long time, people were living in a constant state of terror, too scared to even leave their house in case of an air strike. Obviously, it can’t totally remove that fear, but it can make life that bit more bearable.”

Sentry also gives civilians caught in the crossfire the opportunity to become spotters. The Washington Post reports that the spotters view their often dangerous job as a “rare chance for action in the face of overwhelming atrocity.” For Syrians who have had all semblance of normalcy stripped from their lives in the past seven years, Sentry provides a chance to regain some control and regain a feeling of safety lost in the midst of war and chaos.

Tom McGee

Tom is the Senior Digital Media Specialist in the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center at Seton Hall. He's the point person for anything WordPress.

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