The Pakistani Whose Timely Tweets Save Lives
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is real-life proof that knowledge is power.
When interviewing Norbert Almeida, you become acutely aware that every minute your discussion drags on may be putting lives at risk. His phone is off, which means he’s not tweeting out constant alerts updating Karachi’s citizens on vital information about what’s happening around the city. Almeida, a security expert, is best known for his popular Norbalm twitter account, which sends out routine alerts on security issues like possible kidnappings, crimes, deaths, roadblocks and bombings. In a dangerous place like Karachi, Almeida’s alerts can literally save people’s lives.
Dealing with security issues is Almeida’s life. He makes a living working as a security adviser focused on the Middle East and Africa. But his passion project is his alerts, which he dispenses for free. Almeida has become known as a coveted source for his speedy, unbiased, unfiltered and reliable information. His alerts give real-time information that helps people navigate their daily lives more safely and, it seems, anecdotally at least, he is more trusted (and faster) than any media outlet in the country. Many Karachiites follow him avidly, the way a New Yorker might check The New York Times and 1010 WINS. Almeida also has a blog and bimonthly column in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, where he gives advice on security and personal safety, like how to stay safe on New Year’s Eve.
The alerts started out as a service that he shared with a small group of people. Unbeknownst to him, those people started sending the alerts to their friends and families. Then late one night, 12 years ago, Almeida got a call. An older woman was sobbing on the phone and thanking him. It turned out that she’d received one of his alerts about a traffic-clogging street protest from a family member. When her husband suffered a heart attack that day, she was able to tell the ambulance to take a different route to the hospital. The doctors told her that if they’d arrived even five minutes later, her husband would have died.
“Twelve years ago, that’s what drove me to open up this service to everyone and anyone I knew. I made it a wide-scale service and never looked back,” says Almeida. “The fact that she made that effort to call me, it told me that I could make a difference to someone I don’t even know.”
Along with Twitter, Whatsapp, BBM and the Pakistani social network Pring, Almeida’s alerts are broadcast through an app called Mohafiz (an Arabic word meaning preserver or guardian), which helps Pakistanis with emergency situations. Mohafiz can alert others about a user’s emergency, find a blood donor and keep users updated on situations in the city that may affect their lives. Almeida lets the company use his alerts free of charge as part of the app’s services.
OZY met Almeida at a café in Karachi to talk about how he gets his intel and why he says he will always keep his service free. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Do you consider yourself a journalist?
Almeida: I’m not a journalist. I don’t claim to be one and never will. My aim is not to break news. I put information out there.
How do you think of yourself?
Almeida: I see myself as someone who has information that can help people.
Have you ever wanted to monetize the service?
Almeida: I don’t want to monetize it in Pakistan. We have a dearth of reliable information that can help people. I’ve always told everyone it will remain free as long as I’m putting it out. I will not charge for it because it’s my way of making a difference in this community.
What you post is almost like a raw news service. It’s very straightforward, with no opinion, and people trust you.
Almeida: And that’s deliberate. You know, my Twitter account handle got verified. Right now, only media is getting verified in Pakistan. I also get followed by international media. Why are they following me? Why are you talking to me? Because of the alerts. With social media, I always share with the view that it can help someone.
Do you post controversial material?
Almeida: I’m self-censored. On a personal front, I understand there are risks out there for posting things. For instance, I post security alerts online telling you where to go, where not to go, what’s happening. But I don’t say, “Don’t go here, don’t go there.” I’ll say, “X thing is happening, expect roadblocks.” Now you need to be really dumb not to understand what I’m saying. But I’m not saying it.
How do you know if the information is correct?
Almeida: Here’s how I do it. This was an in-house thing for a bunch of security managers like myself who wanted to know what was happening in the city at any given time. So we kept it on SMS. We then all were able to verify the information. Soon it became bigger and, as a result, we knew that we could trust certain people. Can they get it wrong? Yes. But if I’m in doubt, I’ll hold. And I’ll start monitoring who else is talking about it. Or if I think it’s still significant, I’ll put “reportedly,” “allegedly,” “unconfirmed.”
And who are your sources?
Almeida: Ordinary folk.
It’s amazing that you’ve been doing this on your own.
Almeida: Yes, sometimes people ask me, “Do you ever sleep?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” I do. I actually get angry if I miss the news. I get angry with myself if I miss something.
Do you feel like you have great power and responsibility? Do you ever stay up at night wondering if you’re up to this?
Almeida: Well, I think I’ve earned enough goodwill with someone somewhere to ensure I have a smoother life maybe in the afterworld. But I’m not doing it for that. I’m doing it because I know I can make a difference. And if I make a difference in one person’s life, that’s one more than yesterday. But yes, there have been days when I was really bogged down and I couldn’t do it.
How do you feel about the way your alerts have evolved over the years?
Almeida: Twelve years later, this is where I am: There’s a regular column. The blog stays active. The alerts go out. And I know I have been able to change people’s lives, without any spending.
Right now, we’ve been chatting for an hour and your phone is in your pocket. Do you physically send the alerts yourself?
Almeida: Yes. I’ve ignored them. So if something happens, it’s on you.