A trio of computer science students were on a semester break when the White Flag movement caught their attention.
Initiated by users on social media, the movement urges those in need during the pandemic to raise a white flag outside their houses or premises if they require help.
Sidharrth, Cornelius and Shawn, who only wanted to be known by their first names, said they noticed individuals like members of parliaments (MPs) were asking those in need of help to contact them on Twitter.
“I felt that all the information – people asking for help and those offering assistance – should be on one centralised platform,” Sidharrth, 18, said.
His friend Cornelius, 20, agreed that a quick and simple solution was needed to expedite the process, as the information was too scattered on social media.
This prompted them to start developing Sambal SOS, a web-based application (www.sambalsos.com) that crowdsources information from the public.
A handy map shows the location of people in need of help, along with their contact info and what they require.
The team also has a policy in place to vet and verify every application.
“We have a strict procedure – we will not publish photos with the faces of people visible or include unnecessary personal details because we don’t want to violate anybody’s privacy,” Sidharrth said.
After a request for help is posted on the site, it will be automatically expunged after one week, said Sidharrth, explaining that they don’t want to amass user data on their site.
However, the endeavour has not been without challenges. After the beta version went live last week, the team spent hours debugging the site, as some users complained they couldn’t log in.
They also needed to urgently upgrade the server as traffic started to spike. A kind soul agreed to host it for free after they appealed for help on social media.
Since the site went live on July 4, Sidharrth said over 6,000 people have registered and it has over 40 requests for help.
They plan to add an upvoting feature so that legitimate and urgent requests will be better highlighted.
The three youngsters also hope to sustain the website beyond the White Flag movement by highlighting food banks and people who want to offer help.
“We’re building a team of volunteers to help us vet both requests for help and offers of assistance.
“There are also plans to improve the user interface and add more language options, including Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese,” Sidharrth said.
However, they don’t plan to build a mobile app for Sambal SOS, as they don’t want to burden users with the hassle of installing yet another app.
“We already have so many apps and they have to be constantly updated to eradicate bugs. We want to give our users a fuss-free solution,” Sidharrth said.
Sambal SOS was developed remotely with Sidharrth and Cornelius in the Klang Valley and Shawn in Penang.
“We’re currently on our semester break and were exploring ways to create projects that will leave an impact.
“We are excited to be able to play our part to help people,” said Cornelius, adding that it was heartwarming to see Malaysians coming together to help others in need during the pandemic.
The trio also credited their parents who work in the tech field for helping them in the development of the web app.
“When we were building the app, we asked about what factors to consider and they told us to be aware of user privacy and have policies to safeguard the information of people who are requesting help,” Sidharrth said.
Another similar initiative is by Terato Tech, a company based in Bangi, Selangor, which developed the website Kita Jaya Malaysia (kitajaga.co).
Its CEO Zara Aida Razali said one of the company’s developers felt that the movement restrictions made it difficult to locate people needing help.
“So four of our developers got together over the weekend and started hashing out ideas for a website,” she said.
The website, launched on July 5, allows users to search for people looking for help, volunteers offering aid and food banks.
“We decided to list food banks first before opening it to users to pin their white flags or those volunteering to help to list their contact details,” she said.
Since it went live, the website has attracted more than 57,000 users with over a thousand people offering help.
“Some who have received aid have reached out to us to remove their posts. All posts except food bank listings on the website will be deleted after three days as a privacy measure,” Zara Aida said.
She said those offering aid have to take protective measures to safeguard themselves.
“We are concerned about scammers. Users have asked for a validation mechanism on the website to verify the posts and we are working towards it.
“However, our focus for now is on handling the heavy traffic and finding ways to maintain the website,” she said.
A day after the website went live, the company was charged RM6,000 for using Google Maps API, forcing it to put the site on “maintenance mode”.
The website is now up and running after the company was able to secure funding from Google Malaysia.
A sound move
To help refugees in Malaysia stay informed about Covid-19, Lynne Baillie, a professor at the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Britain, helped the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the local non-governmental organisation (NGO) Aspire Penang develop an app.
The RefugeeHelpVirus app, released last year, provides information on local guidelines, health screenings and how to seek help for supplies such as food.
It also has a handy audio option that reads out the text in different languages such as Rohingya, as Baillie was concerned that the language barrier could prevent refugees from seeking help.
“We spoke to NGO workers to understand what features should be in the app.
“They shared some of the issues that they were facing and what was required from the app to help them navigate the Covid-19 situation in Malaysia,” she said.
When developing the app, Baillie applied the Participatory Design method which originates from Scandinavia.
“Basically, when you’re thinking of introducing any changes through technology, this method requires you to include the workers or end users in the process.
“You need to understand their perspective so you are able to design a solution based on their needs so technology can be effectively used to fulfil their tasks,” she said.
Baillie also helped to develop HelpToConnect, a mobile app that provides safety guides and assistance to the Rohingya refugees in the country.
When researching for the app, Baillie’s team held a workshop in Penang with members of the refugee community to get their input.
“The NGO involved in the development of the app was really great as it used a participatory approach, which helped us to develop an app that was really close to the voices of the end users.
“In fact, some of the graphics you see in the app were originally from drawings made by the refugees themselves,” she said.
However, both RefugeeHelpVirus and HelpToConnect don’t receive frequent updates, lamented Baillie.
“We provided an easy to use back-end that could be updated by the NGO and also UNHCR, but they don’t have the manpower to update them.
“I think there should be more tech initiatives like this and some support provided to organisations such as UNHCR so that they have sufficient manpower.
It is not unwillingness on UNHCR’s part as the organisation is very interested in the apps and has offices all over Malaysia, she explained, adding that restrictions due to the pandemic have also made it challenging for some projects to continue.
Moving forward, Baillie said she will ask students under her wing to help update the app as part of their final year university projects.
Making it work
In May, the Human Resources Ministry (MOHR) launched the Working For Workers (WFW) app, which it described as a “digital channel for both local and foreign workers in Malaysia to lodge reports on labour-related complaints”.
“WFW serves as a single window for workers to lodge labour-related complaints to the Labour Department.
“All the complaints will be handled by the 80 offices throughout the country,” MOHR said in a statement.
However, the various phases of the movement control order (MCO) and now the National Recovery Plan made it difficult for workers to file reports at its offices.
The ministry also acknowledged that the pandemic had made it more difficult to monitor the status of reports filed at the Labour Department.
“Furthermore, there were grouses among the public that action was not taken on reports that were lodged,” MOHR added.
“Since the beginning of the first MCO in March last year, MOHR has opened an operations room and received an outpouring of calls and email messages.”
These reasons led the ministry to build an app to make its services more accessible for “workers to voice out their complaints or grievances”.
When the app was initially launched, it offered 16 categories for complaints, including being dismissed without notice, not given annual/maternity leave, paid late and not paid for overtime.
On May 23, a new complaint category – “Employers Not Allowing To Work From Home” – was introduced for lodging complaints against companies that did not allow working from home as required by the restrictions set by the government.
The category recorded one of the highest number of complaints – 2,223 – since it was introduced.
“Based on the analysis of the complaints received through WFW, the ministry is able to determine the location of errant employers and subsequently perform better targeted inspections and enforcement.
“The analysis would also give us a better understanding of the issues affecting workers, which in turn will allow us to formulate better evidence-based policies on labour related matters,” MOHR said.
The app lets users upload supporting documents such as photos and screenshots to assist the ministry with its investigations.
“To ensure that the appropriate action can be taken, users are advised to provide accurate and adequate information as requested in the app.
“For example, many of the complaints we received did not have the full name and address of the employers, which makes it difficult on our end to fully investigate such cases,” MOHR added.
Once MOHR receives a complaint, it follows three steps, namely verification, inspection and endorsement.
The ministry claimed that it will take action within seven days of receiving a complaint, before it follows through with the rest of the steps.
In total, more than 5,352 complaints have been made through the app, which MOHR sees as a sign that the pandemic has affected workers “severely”.
“However, many workers still refuse to come forward for fear of losing their job if their identity is made known to their employers,” the ministry said.
The Labour Department has taken action on more than 3,874 cases that it received through the app, claimed MOHR, adding that it was not an easy feat due to various restrictions during the pandemic.
Some of the steps the ministry has taken include making inspections and follow-up calls to the workplace.
“This has served as a deterrent for employers to cease their unlawful conduct towards their workers,” MOHR said.
However, the ministry acknowledged that the app is still in its infancy stage and it’s working to improve it and welcomes suggestions from users.
“We are in the midst of adding more categories of complaints based on the issues faced by workers, and strengthening our inspection and investigation to respond to their needs,” MOHR said.