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An app for war: Crowd-sourcing Scud missile launch notifications

Dlshad Othman, a Syrian Kurd living in Washington, D.C., developed an online monitoring program that warns Syrian civilians of purported government missile attacks. He participated in a conference held by Google during the week of Oct. 21, in New York. James Novogrod / NBC News

As Dlshad Othman, a 27-year-old software engineer and Internet activist, addressed a crowd of technologists in a downtown New York hotel Monday, the phone in his pocket was collecting urgent alerts from a world away, in his native Syria.

The automated emails were sent by a website that tracks the trajectory of Scud missiles fired from the outskirts of Damascus toward rebel-held areas in the north of the country. 

A spotter near Damascus had detected an apparent missile overhead, and had alerted the website. The website is Othman’s own invention; its technology tracks when a missile is fired, and -- using a formula involving trajectory and speed -- calculates a likely landing point. Then it sends warnings to subscribers to seek shelter.

"I finished with the panel and I had messages about a missile," Othman said during an interview Tuesday, seated in a bright hotel atrium overlooking Manhattan's Financial District.

Othman was in New York for a two-day summit hosted by Google, where leading experts on technology and its intersection with modern warfare gathered for panel events and so-called "lab” lunches -- where participants swapped ideas over sandwiches, boxed salads and quinoa

The summit drew from a variety of communities, including business and media. Othman's panel, which featured activists from Syria, Tunisia, and Bahrain, was moderated by NBC's Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel.

Othman says his website — Aymta.com — is the only one of its kind in Syria, where missile attacks have terrorized locals caught in the crossfire of Syria's civil war. The word "aymta" is Arabic for "when."

The Syrian government denies firing Scud missiles on it people. But a Human Rights Watch report this summer counted at least nine missile attacks on the Syrian population between February and July this year. According to the report, an attack in late July in the city of Aleppo killed at least 33 civilians, including 17 children.

The Aymta project was born, Othman says, when he noticed a Facebook post by a friend in the north of Syria. The post, he says, advised that a missile had passed overhead.

"I said, 'What the hell? We can do a running system to let people know,'" Othman recalls. "It took me two months. We launched it officially in June after doing a lot of tests."

Othman says 6,000 people are now subscribed. The information originates from seven spotters living in the hills outside Damascus.

The spotters, all of them volunteers, eye the outgoing missiles and enter estimates into Othman's website. The website then correlates the information with Google mapping technology, and a virtual real time map is produced. It takes about eight to 12 minutes for a regime missile to reach a northern target, Othman says.

Othman says he pays out of pocket for the costs of automated SMS messages that go out in addition to emails, but he says he is working on a mobile app that will send free push notifications.

That update will be designed in the United States. 

Worried that his anti-regime activism would get him killed, Othman left Syria in 2011, months after leaving the Syrian Army — where as a conscript he served as a missile and artillery assistant. He now lives in Washington, D.C., and hopes to adapt his technology in other countries.

"It's a good place to test things," Othman says of Syria's ongoing war. "Unfortunately, it's my country."

Opposition activists contacted by NBC News say missiles are hard to track, and it’s often difficult to ascertain where they land. They said they believe a missile was launched from Damascus on Sunday, and had not heard of another missile launched Monday.

But, as the panel concluded Monday and Othman made his way through his emails, he discovered several Facebook posts regarding a missile launch Monday evening. One alert came from a subscriber in the city of Der ez-Zor, to the northeast of Damascus.

The subscriber, Othman says, reported he had survived the attack.