As the Taliban imposes its draconian rule in Kabul, residents of the city are turning to a crowdsourced public safety app to help them dodge violence, checkpoints and other threats.
The app, called “Ehtesab,” gives iPhone and Android users real-time updates on emergencies in the city of 4.4 million, which fell to the Taliban last week. It bears a strong resemblance to Citizen, the controversial public safety app popular in US cities like New York and Los Angeles that also sends out safety alerts to nearby users.
Ehtesab — which translates to “accountability” in Dari and Pashto — first launched in March of 2020, but has gained increased relevance during the Taliban’s resurgence. The app’s fact-checkers comb through social media and user-submitted reports to verify emergencies, then send out notifications to users who are nearby, 26-year-old founder and CEO Sara Wahedi told The Post.
Wahedi said usage has spiked in recent weeks as the Taliban have taken Kabul. Ehtesab’s 20 staffers, many of whom are women, have scrambled to keep the app up and running while working from home to avoid a potential Taliban crackdown.
“We’re focusing on the immediate capacity that we have, which is to continue our work in crisis mode,” said Wahedi. “I’m just hoping the app doesn’t shut down.”
On Monday, Ehtesab featured alerts about a deadly shooting at the gate of Kabul’s airport and traffic congestion.
In order to avoid attracting Taliban attention, Ehtesab avoids directly referencing the Taliban in its security alerts. Instead of explicitly writing that militants are threatening people at a roadblock, the app may instead warn drivers that there is a checkpoint leading to a traffic jam in a particular area, which can be framed as a non-political traffic report.
As a businesswoman who spent two years working for Afghanistan’s previous US-backed government, Wahedi herself would be a potential target for Taliban retaliation. She left Afghanistan for Canada earlier this summer as the Taliban advanced and moved to New York City over the weekend to pursue on an undergraduate degree at Columbia University.
“I didn’t want to be stuck in Afghanistan,” said Wahedi. “I have guilt because my friends and family are still there.”
Wahedi said she doesn’t know whether she will ever be allowed to return and is doing her best to help the rest of Ehtesab’s employees leave the country. All images of female employees have been removed from the app’s website and social media channels in an effort to avoid Taliban reprisals.
The founder said that public safety app Citizen was “huge inspiration” to her and said she hopes to work with someone from the New York-based public safety app to improve Ehtesab.
But while Citizen gathers most of its emergency reports by assigning employees to listen to 911 scanners for particular boroughs or neighborhoods, Kabul lacks a similarly centralized system. Instead, Ehtesab assigns employees to scan social media for reports of particular kinds of emergencies in Kabul. One worker covers explosions, another covers electricity outages and a third covers the situation at the airport, according to Wahedi.
Ehtesab and Citizen also differ in imagery and tone.
“Citizen is black and dark and red and yellow and emergency colors. You have this kind of anxiety looking at it,” said Wahedi. “I did not want to fetishize security.”
By contrast, Ehtesab uses more cheerful colors like white and blue that Wahedi said are intended to be more calming and reassuring.
Citizen did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
In recent weeks, Ehtesab has grown solely through word of mouth, according to Wahedi. In the future, she wants to figure out how to expand the service to more Kabul residents without attracting Taliban attention.
“There can be a point where Ehtesab is an app that everyone downloads, but what if you have Taliban checking and searching people’s phones to see if they have the app downloaded?” she said. “It’s going to take some time to figure out how we can do this without endangering the lives of our users.”