Lebanon has never been a quiet place. But since the war in Syria broke out, more violence has been slipping over the border. That’s why software engineer Mohammad Taha, 30, created an app that warns people about everything from road blocks to gun fights.
Right now, the founder of Scryptech and his team are at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco to exhibit their war-telling baby “happin!”. Until recently, it was called “Ma2too3a”, but they changed the name after realising that 95 per cent of the world’s population couldn’t recognise the word it was inspired by, let alone pronounce it.
I caught up with Taha prior to his US trip to ask him why he built the app, and how things are going.
Mohammad, according to your app, what has been happening in Lebanon in the past 24 hours?
Let’s see. A former Lebanese ambassador was killed in the Bekaa Valley, the military bombed old ammunition, there were three wild-fires, several car accidents, two demonstrations, snipers shooting close to the Syrian border, and Israeli light bombs in the South. And, as always, a lot of traffic.
How does your app gather this information?
People add these events themselves. Imagine going through a certain area, and you see something dangerous. This could be a roadblock or a street fight. You take out the phone and add it to our map. You can also attach a picture or a video. If other users are in the neighbourhood, they’ll get a push notification that they better get the hell away from there.
It doesn’t sound like Lebanon is the place to be right now.
After years of violence and civil war, we Lebanese navigate through rather than flee.
Who is the app for?
It’s for everyone with iOS or Android software on their phone. Apart from that, there are no limits. We have users between the ages 14 and 70, male and female, and they come from all over the country. Everyone is interested in their personal safety, and the political situation in Lebanon is very agitated.
In other places in the world, the only thing that might obstruct your path is traffic. But here, everything is possible – from a road jam to a violent demonstration to a car bomb.
happin!, free for Android and iPhone.
Your app has a symbol for traffic issues, police operations, crime and danger, street fights, demonstrations – and burning tires.
That’s kind of our thing in Lebanon. We’ve started doing it more than twenty years ago when we wanted to overthrow some government. It is a protest mechanism to show our discontent.
And it is very useful to cause roadblocks. Just take five to seven tires, set them on fire, and place them in the middle of a street. Done.
How did you come up with the idea for “happin!”?
About a year ago, my wife and two-year-old daughter were suddenly surrounded by gun-shots in downtown Beirut. People started burning tires and blocking the road. Luckily, nothing happened to them, but my wife was really scared and called me.
Back then I thought: ‘That’s it, we need a tool to warn people about things like this.’ So I went home and wrote this app.
What kind of event is reported the most?
Definitely traffic-related issues. Which is good in a way, because it means that we still have more traffic jams than gunfights in Lebanon.
Do you make money with your app?
Not yet, but we plan on selling the information we gather to media outlets. We are a lot faster than they can be. Last October, the head of intelligence of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces Wissam al-Hassan died in a massive car bombing near the Achrafieh neighbourhood of Beirut.
We were the first ones to know, before any other media company, because about 15 people reported it immediately.
What if I were to misuse your app by adding events that never happened?
Other users can report false information. You would get a negative score if you were caught and be prevented from adding events in the future.
How many people use it?
With our country being drawn more and more into Syria’s civil war, people’s concerns have grown – and so have our download numbers. Now, we have about 80,000 users in Lebanon, which is a huge number compared to our population [Editor’s Note: 4 million].
A lot of our users check the app several times a day. One girl wrote that checking it before leaving the house has become just as normal to her as putting on make-up.
It seems like the more people use your app, the worse the situation in Lebanon seems.
True. The whole application is so gloomy and negative that we recently added another icon, a red heart. People can use it to report positive events, like parties or weddings. One guy just used it to propose to his girlfriend.