Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Some of you may know that I've been preoccupied with construction-safety standards in Istanbul for quite some time, particularly because Istanbul is on a very active fault line. Recent events in Haiti have done little to allay my anxiety.

Nothing I've said or written, as a journalist, has done a thing to improve this situation. For many reasons, it is an extraordinarily difficult problem to solve. (You can skip the links in that last sentence; those are articles I've written about the political and historical obstacles, in Turkey and elsewhere, to building the kinds of institutions needed to mitigate the risk. The links in the first paragraph are much more important.)

I've been encouraged lately by the thought that there might be a more effective way to approach the problem.

I've recently been studying USHAHIDI's crowd-sourcing platform. It permits anyone with access to the Internet to contribute to a collective effort to map crisis information. It's been put to exceptionally good use in Haiti since the earthquake. This link shows how it's been working there.

I suspect that a project like this would be also be effective for disaster prevention and damage mitigation in Istanbul and in other high-risk cities.

The basic idea:

1) Create a simple way for people to report known or suspected construction problems via their cellphones. (For example, broadcast this message on the radio: "If you're worried about your building, dial 4636. You can send us a text message about your concern." There could be a recording, when people call, that asks them to press 1, 2, etc. to report relevant information, e.g., "Does your building have unsupported columns," "Do you live above a commercial establishment," etc.) Based on what people report, an automated system could also offer realistic advice. (For many people here, "move to a retrofitted building" is not economically realistic. "Keep a two-week supply of water in your home" is realistic.)

2) Create an algorithm or decision tree to predict the probability of building collapse.

3) Using trained volunteers, compile a map, based on this information, predicting which buildings and neighborhoods are most likely to be in serious trouble in a major earthquake -- that is, which buildings are most in danger of pancaking or falling off their foundations, which ones are most likely to be very full of people, which parts of the city's infrastructure are most likely to fail.

4) Having a map like this compiled in advance would give rescuers a head start, possibly a considerable one. This could save many lives. After an earthquake, every second matters.

5) The project itself might raise awareness about basic earthquake preparation, the importance of moving out of certain kinds of buildings, the urgency of retrofitting, and the kinds of disaster supplies people need to have on hand.

This is the very basic idea.

I want to think about the feasibility of this and figure out whether it makes sense, and if so, exactly how to do it. I'm going to use this blog for now as a central location for ideas. (If you're new here, this used to be a blog about studying the martial arts in Istanbul, hence the name. The world was not particularly interested in that subject, and I suppose rightly so.)

People who have been thinking about this idea with me so far, or who would like to start, might want to use the comment section here for their ideas, for now. There are still people out there who don't use Facebook. The key to crowd-sourcing is a crowd.

Please forward this widely; there is no way on God's earth I can make this work on my own.


  1. Claire, I LOVE this idea! I'm going to check with the upper levels about how much Mission 4636 has cost to run, as a good place to start. I'll check back soon!

  2. This is a very interesting idea, especially for those who live in earthquake territory. But given the size of Los Angeles, where I live, pre-mapping potential problem buildins and neighborhoods would be a huge project. Who could coordinate such a thing? Surely not the city government.

  3. BdV, absolutely NOT the government, which is one of the main attractions of the idea. It's a crowd-sourcing project -- which seems to me BY FAR the best way to deal with a problem of this magnitude. Basically, it's the same principle as Wikipedia. Have a look at

  4. Good idea. Some American cities have a similar system to report pot-holes and other problems, and they seem to work to pressure city hall.
    Off the top of my head, I'd suggest finding a system which allows a cell-phone picture of the location and a GPS tag for automated mapping. With those systems, anyone can find a map of the city with problems marked. They can watch as the problems are solved...or not.
    An excellent idea, frankly.

  5. David, can you elaborate on the idea of the GPS tag for automated mapping? Google mapping already instantly provides GPS coordinates. I doubt most people would be able to send their GPS tags by SMS, but if they provide reasonably clear street addresses and photos (a very good idea), they can be entered into the map by people with reasonable local area knowledge. The GPS coordinates can then be given to rescuers. (Which is exactly what they're now doing in Haiti.)

  6. Claire, the idea of assessing and mapping locations / conditions *ahead* of time is inspired!

  7. Robert, you didn't leave a way to contact you -- might you be Robert Munro of USHAHIDI?

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