On February 25, 2013, a 26-year-old Syrian "hacktivist" who had fled Damascus was sitting up late in his apartment in a Washington suburb watching the Syrian civil war unfold on Twitter.
A man living near an air base southwest of Damascus tweeted that a SCUD missile had been fired and its fiery tail could be seen streaking north. Syria is believed to have at least 700 such SCUDs, which are slow and heavy 1960s-vintage short-range tactical ballistic missiles that the Soviet Union exported to various client states around the world. Having done his compulsory military service in a Syrian artillery unit, Dlshad Othman knew that this SCUD was likely headed for the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. He also knew the missile would be landing in roughly six minutes.
But who would see the Tweet in time?
As he waited helplessly for the SCUD to land, Othman hatched an idea: Set up an early warning system that could take citizen reports of a ballistic missile launch, calculate the likely target, and send alerts in real time to civilians inside the strike zone.