GS Student Entrepreneur Uses Technology to Crowdsource Safety in the Streets of Kabul
By day, Sara Wahedi ‘24GS is a student pursuing a major in Human Rights with a concentration in Data Science. By night, she is the CEO of Ehtesab, a crowdsourcing app that gives residents of Kabul real time updates on safety situations throughout the city. For her innovative work, which has become even more needed and risky since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, Sara has been recognized across the world, including being named a “Next Generation Leader” by Time Magazine and a member of the “Badass 50” by InStyle Magazine. We spoke with Sara about her deeply personal motivation behind creating Ehtesab, her short and long term goals for the app, and how she balances academic commitments with her duties as a CEO.
Tell us about Ehtesab — what prompted you to create this app and what was the process like?
The idea of Ehtesab came about from a very personal experience, and one that many Afghans living in Afghanistan have faced, which is terrorism. I was walking home from work on May 9, 2018 when a suicide bomber detonated himself a few hundred yards from my home. We were on lockdown until the next morning, and the lack of access to emergency information and updates on the explosion was a wake-up call for me. My privilege of being able to access the internet through my phone was a stark reminder of the inequity of access to information, especially in a country like Afghanistan.
“I’ve made it my personal mission to work on information inequality in Afghanistan and ensure Afghans are a part of the conversation when it comes to what is happening in their communities.”
Since that explosion, I’ve made it my personal mission to work on information inequality in Afghanistan and ensure Afghans are a part of the conversation when it comes to what is happening in their communities. The process of creating the app spanned over two years. We knew that the only way to combat the inequality of the rural provinces was to first gain the trust of those who had the capacity to advocate for the expansion and growth of the service—and that was city residents. Through multiple surveys, it became apparent to us that in order to gain trust, we needed to offer something for users, and the resounding response was a tool to receive real-time, verified alerts on nearby incidents. Most of 2020 was filled with the design process and testing of the app, which launched in July of that year.
You’ve previously spoken about how Ehtesab isn’t just a resource for information that can be used to inform people’s choices, it’s intended as a balm for people’s anxiety when they are trying to figure out what’s happening in their surroundings. Can you talk a bit more about the anxiety of living in a place with a lot of unpredictability, and how Ehtesab aims to address this?
Ehtesab’s design is very simple, and that is for a specific reason. The colors are bright, the icons are friendly, and the features are straightforward. Ehtesab is meant to do nothing else but to shed light on what is going on around the user. It is not meant to frighten, cause anxiety or entice the user to keep checking the app. By getting straight to the point and providing only the information needed to help a user make an important decision, like what route to drive or which areas to stay away from, we know we’ve done our part.
Misinformation and disinformation have increased with social media’s penetration of Afghanistan’s major cities. It can also result in very dangerous situations, with social media users reading something which may very well be false, and that leads them into a location or situation which has not been verified. This adds to the anxiety of living in a city like Kabul. We only send push notifications and post reports on Ehtesab’s map when we have ensured our information has been thoroughly researched, reviewed, and verified. I believe that is why our user base continues to grow. Users know that they don’t need to question our content. They’ve seen our work over the last year, especially following the collapse of the government in August.
Since the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, you and your team have been working remotely to run Ehtesab. What has that experience been like, and how do you balance your work with you and your employees’ safety in these circumstances?
During the first few hours of the Taliban’s entrance into Kabul, we were monitoring the situation minute-by-minute, and most of my team had their things packed and ready to go in case it was confirmed that the government had collapsed. It was when then-President Ashraf Ghani had announced that he was stepping down that the team fled the office and headed home.
"We all continued to work around-the-clock, which many of them have told me was helpful in keeping them busy amidst all of the trauma, to be able to contribute to our fellow Afghans."
For the first two months, the team worked from their homes. We all continued to work around-the-clock, which many of them have told me was helpful in keeping them busy amidst all of the trauma, to be able to contribute to our fellow Afghans. By keeping the team’s identities anonymous and limiting their time in the office, we try to keep a low-profile. Yet, we may be pressed to take a position against the Taliban in the near future, especially as we expand the app and provide reporting capacity to users and create a framework to document human rights violations across the country. In that case, the team will most likely need to relocate out of the country.
As you’re running Ehtesab, you’re also a student. How do you manage your academic and work priorities at the same time, especially given the nature of your work?
This is the second semester where I’ve registered in courses that are held during the mornings so I can work on Ehtesab in the evenings. It’s a daily job for me. Since the government collapsed, there hasn’t been a day where we haven’t had a report to verify or document, so I know that there is something to do every day. It is a responsibility that I’ve taken on for four years now, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Staying organized and exercising helps to balance out my thoughts, as well as taking courses that have some sort of connection to my work, expanding my knowledge in areas like urban politics, law, and technology.
What was the path that brought you to Columbia GS? What motivated you to pursue your education here?
Columbia has been my dream school since I was very young. Any time I visited New York, the first place I’d visit was the Morningside campus. I have no idea why, but I was naturally drawn to Columbia and its legacy as an academic institution. While working for the Office of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, I gained a significant amount of experience in social development policy—and my interest in community-building and citizen engagement grew tenfold. I knew that I needed to continue my studies, but was not able to commit to anything full-time or outside of the country during Ehtesab’s first days. When I had the time to make the next step in my academic journey, the first school I searched was Columbia. Once I read about GS and its mission to support nontraditional journeys and aspiring change-makers, I applied immediately.
"When I had the time to make the next step in my academic journey, the first school I searched was Columbia. Once I read about GS and its mission to support nontraditional journeys and aspiring change-makers, I applied immediately."
In your time at Columbia so far, what class has had the most impact on you and what was your biggest takeaway from that class?
Last semester, I took Human Rights and the Urban Public Space with Dr. Noah Chasin. My advisor warned me that it was a senior seminar, but once I saw the title, I knew I had to register, even if it was my first semester at a rigorous institution like Columbia. Over the course of the semester, my biggest takeaway from the class was how policymaking regarding public spaces should follow a human rights approach, while also learning about the possible ramifications of negating such an approach. It is impossible to see urban spaces without the lens of human rights now, and I am so grateful that I can pursue urban design and policy through this new mode of thinking. Professor Chasin is an incredible instructor and academic, and I highly urge other students to take his class if they are able. My term paper was titled “Finding Life in Urban ‘Deathscapes’: Reclaiming Kabul’s cemeteries as mixed-use community spaces.” I hope to continue with my research from this paper when I attend graduate school.
What are your hopes for the trajectory of Ehtesab? What do you hope to ultimately accomplish with the app and your future endeavors?
In the future, I hope that Ehtesab will become an innovation hub where more tools will be built to support community development, citizen engagement, transparency, and accountability across Afghanistan, and potentially other neighboring countries. In the near future, we will be working steadfastly to provide offline access to Ehtesab alerts through simple mobile phones and SMS texts. Through Ehtesab, we want to create a precedent for reliable, trustworthy information. We hope that it will become the status quo for disseminating information ethically and equitably across Afghanistan.