Rancho Penasquitos

Rancho Peñasquitos Man Working With Thousands Online to Help Turkey Earthquake Victims

“You’re far away, thousands of miles away and I don’t really have search and rescue skills,” said Alihan Polat. “But, I have digital skills.”

NBC Universal, Inc.

Alihan Polat grew up in Turkey. He has friends and family in the country but has since relocated to San Diego with his wife and young kids. He is a part-time professor at both UC San Diego and the University of San Diego and focuses on urban planning.

But, he always makes an effort to stay connected to home.

When he heard the news of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hitting Turkey and Syria, there was little information available and he didn’t know how to react at first.

“On Sunday evening, I actually received a message from BBC on my phone,” said Polat.

Memories rushed back to him of 1999, when another large earthquake took a toll on the country. He was a college student at the time, and while he was able to survive unscathed, some of his friends were not so lucky.

“That was devastating, but this is, all of the images and data that I can see, it’s way worse than what it was,” said Polat, who said he couldn’t help but compare the two tragedies.

One of the most significant differences between 1999 and now: technology.

“You’re far away, thousands of miles away and I don’t really have search and rescue skills,” said Polat. “But, I have digital skills.”

Polat was scrolling through LinkedIn, when he saw that some people he was connected with were also looking for ways to help. His research eventually led him to a group on Discord, a messaging platform.

“I actually created a membership for myself and signed on immediately,” said Polat. “Then, I started seeing close to 1,200 people.”

And, that was just within the first 24 hours.

“I became part of it, thousands of people became part of it. I think as of this morning, I was looking at how many members we have, it was close to 25,000,” said Polat.

Everyone on the platform was offering their skills, from data refinement to mapping. Within a matter of days, they were able to create an interactive tool that uses social media posts to connect resources with those who need them most.

“A lot of people who were stuck under collapsed buildings, were tweeting from under the buildings giving addresses,” said Polat. “They were even describing which side of the rubble they should start digging, they were like, ‘I’m at the north side of the room, I’m fine, look at the south side’.”

The website is open to the public, and when zoomed out, it looks like a heat map. However, when you zoom in, the details are revealed.

“So, depending on if you are a survivor and need a place to stay, if you need a tool, if you need a safe point, there’s even animal therapy right now,” said Polat, explaining the different filters people can search by.

Each dot on the map correlates directly to a social media post, asking for help.

“The moment you click on it you could actually see the original tweet,” said Polat, who demonstrated by clicking and reading a tweet. “This is actually a Turkish address. This says the name of the neighborhood, the name of the street, this is the name of the housing site.”

The interactive map is one of several tools that the group from around the world has been able to create. Polat said it is a true sign of synergy.

“It was not organized by a government agency, not organized by any company, it was completely civic movement,” said Polat. “If you wanted to create a product like this, it would have taken probably a private company at least like four to six months of work.”

Not to mention, he added, it would likely cost millions of dollars.

“This is 25,000 people working, no compensation, no nothing,” said Polat. "Just trying to help and be ambitious about what they can do, what they can offer.”

Another one of the tools that Polat has been focusing on closely is focused on the buildings that were either damaged or collapsed. He is using satellite imagery, combined with other data, to pinpoint what kind of buildings collapsed. He hopes to use that information to better inform construction in the future to protect residents.

It is a personal cause for Polat. He told NBC 7 that he lost a close friend, along with the friend’s wife and two young kids, to the earthquake. He is still mourning but feels like this is a way he can help others from feeling the same pain.

“I can’t really help my friend, but I’m trying to help others,” said Polat. “I know how to do this, so I felt like I need to do this. People need it.”

Contact Us