Musk's Twitter hinders Turkey rescue efforts with new API decision
The end of free access to the platform's API created confusion among developers who are using social media public data to help field rescue teams locate survivors.
Following the catastrophic earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on Monday, thousands of developers and OSINT experts have been trying to contribute to the relief efforts by offering data collected from social media, cleaning them, then passing them along to on-the-ground rescue missions to help with the search-and-rescue missions.
According to a media outlet, up until Friday, 22,000 individuals from Turkey's tech community took it upon themselves to scrape social data, correct errors, and create maps - most of which are heat maps - that show the areas from which the most distress calls are coming from, then forward them to field rescue teams to help narrow the scope of the search for survivors amid the mass areas destroyed by the earthquake.
One of the most important media tools used by the tech group is Twitter, which has long been a very resourceful outlet to cover fast and complex events.
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However, this has changed since Elon Musk bought the media giant back in October 2022, the outlet claims.
The report published on Saturday, citing four data scientists, argues that after 80% of the platform's staff were laid off after Musk's takeover and recent changes made to its API packages, data streaming has slowed down and issues with system applications that earlier enabled developers, academics, journalists, and NGOs to collect data have "intensified".
Communications between developers and Twitter's engineering teams are currently "inactive" after portals connecting the two have been severed, added the report in reference to the APIs.
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On February 2, Twitter announced, without previous warning, that it will end free access to its API within a week, before it extended the deadline to February 13.
The social media outlet said it will charge $100 per month for its basic API package.
Twitter's decision will affect the tech group's efforts to efficiently and swiftly coordinate with the field crews, which, in turn, will impact rescue missions in affected areas, the specialists told the news site.
'Earthquake Help Project': Tech community's initiative to help field rescue teams
“Twitter is crucial during such disasters,” Eser Özvataf, a developer and one of the leaders of the “Earthquake Help Project" told the media site.
“Maybe it depends on the culture, but in Turkey, text-based social media communications are mostly on Twitter," he added, noting that the project has provided over 45,000 unique AI-refined entries calling for help in affected areas.
Sedat Kapanoglu, a former software engineer at Microsoft and co-founder of Turkish social platform Ekşi Sözlük also working on the project, told the site, “Tweets are used for calling for all kinds of help."
“If the API stops, the flow of data will stop and people will have to rely solely on slower ways of coordination for the relief efforts,” he added.
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“That can have life-altering effects. It’s that important,” he stressed.
Twitter was especially one of the best online tools to collect this data in Turkey as the country ranks seventh in the world for users.
“People under the rubble called for help by sending tweets. Others retweeted them,” said Kapanoglu. “We have a tremendous amount of data there, and the API is the most reliable and the safest way to access that data continuously.”
Twitter is turning a blind eye
Since taking over the company, Musk has slashed off most of the engineers that previously updated the platform's systems that enabled the clean and efficient flow of reliable data.
An associate professor of International Relations at Ozyegin University in Istanbul, Akin Unver, told the site that routine attempts to access the social media's data server started to return inconsistent data as of late October.
Unver, also an expert on computational methods and digital crisis communication, added that the mass firing broke down the “previously robust and efficient engineering system built by Twitter.”
Twitter Developers’ Communities, a portal that served as a communication method between data analysts and Twitter's engineering teams, has been inactive since Musk took over, while Twitter has not responded to complaints on that matter, Unver added.
Ugur Kursuncu, a computer scientist at Georgia State University who is also participating in the effort, said that Twitter's out-of-the-blue announced surprised programmers taking part in relief efforts and caused a lot of confusion among the community who can lack a very valuable source of public data.
“Twitter is just turning a blind eye,” Kursuncu told the site. “People have resorted to just tagging [Musk] on Twitter.”
“The social consequences of the business decisions being made by these platforms have to be accounted for, because any kind of restrictions or limitations are going to have very serious consequences that are going to impact millions of people’s lives," he concluded.