Picture taken from the halaat-o-meter website. Green dots represent a normal situation while the red dots are indicative of areas experiencing some violence. — Osman Husain/Spider Magazine Photo
What is Karachi most notorious for? Even a Hollander would know the answers to that question: rampant crime, traffic jams, protests, and generally a very volatile law-and-order situation.
So what does a bright, young Dutchman do when he travels to Pakistan’s commercial capital by the sea in his quest for entrepreneurial excellence?
He creates ‘Halaat-o-meter’.
“Karachiites, wondering if you can reach home safely? Check halaat-o-meter.com,” tweets Gertjan Van Laar (@gertjanvanlaar), an internet entrepreneur from the Netherlands living and working in Karachi. Having led a mobile development and design company in the troubled Pakistani metropolis for two years, Gertjan noticed how the instability and unpredictability of Karachi’s security situation affected the daily lives of those around him, and came up with an idea to counter the problem with the use of technology.
As the name suggests, Halaat-o-meter is a web-based tool for collecting and sharing reports of the halaat, or situation, in different parts of the city. The app is completely free and relies on reports provided by the user community. “Halaat-o-meter is a crowd-sourced platform that enables residents to post updates on the situation in their neighbourhoods during times of trouble,” says Mohammad Amjad Rafique, who led the project team that developed the application at Grappetite. “The app integrates Google Maps in a way that users can post the latest information regarding the situation in their area. Users login by authenticating their identities through Facebook and then share updates on the real-time map of their area,” he explains.
The simple yet highly innovative application, first launched as a web-based app less than two months ago, runs primarily from within the browser. Upon opening the website, it asks you to share your location through Google Maps, and zooms in to your closest coordinates on the map on the main screen. The design is minimalistic: the map is at the centre of the window, and on its right a scrolling list of users who have posted the most recent updates.
“Users can post their reports of bombings, firing incidents, protest marches, traffic jams or road blocks. Or, if all is well, an update of everything is OK,” Amjad elaborates. “OK reports show up as green dots on the map, while undesirable events become red dots, letting users know of what areas to avoid going through in case of a traffic jam or firing incident.”
The developer is quick to point out that reports from Halaat-o-meter are crowd-sourced and that the website is dependent on the contribution of the community. “As the information is crowd-sourced, people might report fake incidents. The more people reporting an incident, the more reliable the report is,” reads the website’s FAQ section. “However, we have tried our best to ensure that reports are as reliable as possible by employing Facebook authentication. Also, we block all users who abuse or spam the platform,” says Amjad.
Still in its fledgling days, Halaat-o-meter has already witnessed user abuse, though some of it was more mischief than misuse. A user recently posted on the app’s Facebook page a screenshot of an update of “fish killed by firing” in the middle of the Arabian Sea. Another post on Antarctica reported “Everything OK, just chilly here.”
“We have had some incidents of spamming and abuse, but that has been very rare,” adds the developer. The app has not only been quick to catch the attention of the international media, with it being featured in an Al-Jazeera report last month, it has also gained a following on social media. Some fans on Twitter called Gertjan’s idea a stroke of “pure genius.”
“This is genius. Karachi now has a crowd-sourced Halaat-o-Meter,” tweeted @AsadHashim.
“Halaat-o-meter.com is just what Karachi needed,” said @Naseerzk.
“We got a very good response earlier on, with our site traffic peaking at 25,000 users,” claims Amjad. “As traffic grew, we got requests by the users, and we were quick to identify the need for a mobile version of the Halaat-o-meter app so people can post updates on the go.”
“We have recently launched an Android app, and, with work underway on the iPhone app, an iOS version is expected to be released mid-April.” The Android app, however, has received quite a few complaints of glitches and errors. An attempt by this scribe of running the app on an Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean device ended in failure. According to the developer, the app currently works smoothly only on Gingerbread 2.3, but there are reported issues with running it on Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean. “We have identified the problems and you can hopefully look forward to a stable update to the Android app in the first week of this month,” he says.
Another plan that the project manager was reluctant to mention was Twitter integration. “Initially, we also got requests for authentication through Twitter, but we preferred Facebook, mainly due to the large number of users,” he said. “We are looking into the idea of leveraging the Twitter platform to enhance website functionality and reporting. Though, at the moment, we cannot say for sure if this plan will materialise or not.”
Amjad maintains that Halaat-o-meter is a not-for-profit project, and the website will neither host ads nor will it charge for subscription. “This app is for the community, and we hope it will grow better by the day.”