Tech activists write code to save migrants in the Mediterranean

A group of 61 migrants on a wooden boat are rescued by crew members of the Geo Barents migrant rescue ship, operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), in international waters off the coast of Libya in the central Mediterranean Sea September 28, 2023. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

A group of 61 migrants on a wooden boat are rescued by crew members of the Geo Barents migrant rescue ship, operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), in international waters off the coast of Libya in the central Mediterranean Sea September 28, 2023. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

What’s the context?

Tech-savvy volunteers are building apps such as One Fleet to help migrant rescue NGOs reach ships in distress in the Mediterranean

  • Migrant crossings and deaths rise in the Mediterranean
  • Rescue NGOs seek tech tools as open-source data cuts cost
  • Activists build tracking apps, image-detection algorithms

When a migrant rescue non-profit asked Nicolas Zemke if he could design an app to pinpoint ships in distress in the Mediterranean, the German web developer headed to a hackers' convention to look for like-minded volunteers.

He found help among the hordes of tech hobbyists huddled over their laptops at the Chaos Computer Club's annual gathering in the northern city of Hamburg - a mecca for hackers and activists intent on using their coding skills for social good.

"It's a lot of nice people who are really fed up with certain events in the world and are into awesome ways of trying to change that," Zemke, 32, told Context.       

After five years of late nights and coding sessions in their spare time, Zemke said his team's One Fleet app would soon be rolled out on search-and-rescue vessels operated by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the Mediterranean.

Nearly 28,000 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe since 2015, according to the U.N. refugee agency, making it one of the deadliest routes for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict, persecution or poverty. 

Last year, the number of people attempting to reach Europe by land and sea rose by 70% compared with 2022 and the number who died or went missing rose to the highest level since 2017.

In one of Europe's deadliest shipping disasters in recent years, hundreds of migrants drowned after an overloaded boat sank off the Greek town of Pylos in June 2023.

Migrant rescue NGOs hope the One Fleet app, along with drones and vessel auto-detection tools in development, will make it easier for them to find and respond to boats in peril.

Search and rescue (SAR) ships using One Fleet will be able to log the coordinates of emergency mobile or satellite phone calls made from vessels in distress to help identify which response team is closest.

"It will at least make the life of the coordinators easier," Zemke said.

Drones, phones and algorithms

Under international law, EU member states and ships are required to rescue people in distress at sea, and hundreds of thousands have been rescued in recent years in the Mediterranean by EU ships and NGOs.

But since more than one million refugees and migrants made it to Europe during a 2015 crisis, the EU and member states have scaled back maritime patrols, instead boosting air patrols and coordination with Libya to deter people-smugglers.

NGOs involved in SAR missions say they are trying to fill the gap.

"But it's obvious with our capacities we cannot do that," said Oliver Kulikowski, a spokesperson for the German NGO Sea-Watch, which started operating in 2015 after Italy retired its SAR ship Mare Nostrum.

Unable to afford the drones and thermal cameras used by the European border agency Frontex, which has a budget of 859 million euros for 2024, he said Sea-Watch had started looking for more affordable options - leading it to approach Zemke.

"We just have to try everything we can," he said.

Sea-Watch, which is among several NGOs that plan to use the One Fleet app, currently locates distressed migrant vessels by using radars, patrolling the sea with binoculars or tracking Frontex drones.

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Volunteers are also working on projects involving drones, image detection, drift-pattern prediction and thermal-imaging cameras that often utilise open-source data, which makes them more affordable.

German space engineer Steffen Merseburg said he is one of very few people updating 60-year-old image-detection algorithms to improve their function so they can be used to identify small boats from publicly available satellite imagery. 

Working with a group of six volunteers, he is developing the technology for Space-Eye, a project founded by another German rescue organisation, Sea-Eye.

So far, they have trained their model to analyse one image in less than 10 minutes, but it can still take hours for images to download from the satellite.

"It's a lot of work," Merseburg said. "(But) I keep doing this because this is what I've learned to do and this is how I can contribute."

Data sovereignty

NGOs are also eager to develop their own tech tools as a way to accurately document their rescue missions, building a body of potential evidence as they face legal challenges over their rescue activities. One Fleet will be used to create such an archive. 

Ten of 18 civil society SAR vessels active in the Mediterranean in 2023 have faced legal action, according to data from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, an EU body.

Some of the cases have cited breaches of safety or navigation rules, while others stem from an EU law that punishes facilitating the unauthorised entry of a non-EU national unless it is for humanitarian reasons, migration experts say.

When authorities detain a ship or restrict a group's operations, having a wide range of tech tools on hand can help keep search and rescue work going, said Luca Kunz, an oceanographer based in Germany who is volunteering with the Civil Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, a network of SARs working in the Mediterranean.

"If you have a diverse toolkit, your operation can go on," said Kunz, 31, who is helping to develop an app that predicts where a floating vessel may end up, based on drift patterns.

Like the other tech-minded volunteers, Kunz said the goal of saving lives spurred him on.

"Spending lots of hours or nights on coding is worth it if I can contribute to the rescue of even one person," he said. 

This story was updated on March 4 2023 with the correct spelling of Zemke's name.

(Reporting by Beatrice Tridimas; Editing by Adam Smith and Helen Popper.)

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