Afraid of sectarian violence? In Lebanon, there’s an app for that

Aug 22, 2013 at 3:00 PM ET

When armed clashes erupt in volatile Lebanon, locals tend to call friends and family for the latest news about what roads are safe and what neighborhoods to avoid. But if the brainchild of one Lebanese entrepreneur succeeds, there could soon be an app for that.

Lebanon is continually plagued by violent outbursts—usually incited by political differences or “personal disputes,” as the local media calls them—that often devolve into long exchanges of automatic gunfire, or worse. Several parts of this tiny Mediterranean country are totally lawless, where militias and clans hold sway and the state is virtually nonexistent.

It’s precisely this sort of climate that spurred Lebanese telecommunications engineer Firas Wazneh to develop “Way to Safety,” an application that uses sound triangulation to pinpoint the precise location of sources of gunfire. He hopes it will even be able to discern exactly what type of weapon was fired.

“I was sitting at home one night and heard a lot of gunfire,” Wazneh tells Vocativ, adding that the slow response time of the Lebanese army and the lack of media attention for several hours also helped spark his idea. Lebanese security forces are not generally known for their prompt reactions to crises or, more importantly, for having the power to stop armed clashes in most parts of the country.

Wazneh hopes that “Way to Safety” will take off in Lebanon and anywhere else that suffers from gun-related violence. He’s not alone. Last spring, a group of computer engineers from Vanderbilt University had a similar idea and created a system for turning an Android phone into a gunfire tracker. According to Vanderbilt’s online Research News:

“The researchers have developed two versions. One uses a single microphone per module. It uses both the muzzle blast and shockwave to determine the shooter location. The second version uses a slightly larger module with four microphones and relies solely on the shockwave.”

The version with a single microphone per device is roughly the same technology that “Way to Safety” will employ. Wazneh says that within 30 seconds of shots being fired, sound triangulation can determine the location of shooters, as well as the type of weapon used. He says the application will be free for residents of “hot zones,” and his hope is that security services, medical personnel and the media will use it too.

One crucial step preceding the launch of “Way to Safety” is gathering digital recordings of as many types of firearms as possible. “We have tried reaching out to the Lebanese army in order to get access to a firing range to record and create a sound database of firearms,” Wazneh says. “But we have yet to be successful.”

Wazneh’s primary focus is on securing funding for his app, though he says the going is slow. “I’m working towards having a full proof of concept by the end of next summer,” he says.

For now, a gay hookup app called “Grindr” remains one of the top downloaded apps in Lebanon, along with an assortment of casino games. But with the civil war in neighboring Syria frequently bloodying Lebanese border areas and sectarian violence steadily on the rise, there’s a chance “Way to Safety” could break onto that list.