Apple pulls refugee rescue mobile app

A screengrab from the promotional video for the I SEA app, which claims to be able to locate migrant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.
A screengrab from the promotional video for the I SEA app, which claims to be able to locate migrant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

S'pore-based creator says app works well and is no dud

A Singapore-based company which created a mobile app that claims to be able to aid refugees adrift at sea has denied widespread allegations that the app is fake.

I SEA, developed by Grey for Good, the philanthropic arm of digital advertising agency Grey Group Singapore, has been pulled from Apple's App store for breaching guideline 1.1.6, which bans "false information and features".

The app says it has the ability to scan the Mediterranean Sea for migrant ships, and purportedly employs real-time satellite data that allows users to spot, tag and report a vessel in distress.

This information is then relayed to the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (Moas) - Grey Group's client for the app - so that the authorities can send help.

But outside developers who tested the award-winning app have flagged it as a dud, revealing that I SEA "pretends" to distribute satellite footage of different parts of the sea to the app's users, but uses the same image.

Some note that the weather information provided is taken from West Libya, while others report that the app is coded to always inform users that their usernames and passwords are invalid.

The controversy has made it to the websites of newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian.

In an e-mail statement to The Straits Times yesterday, Grey Group's chief communications officer, Mr Owen Dougherty, insisted the app was real.

He added: "We said it was in a testing stage and they have some satellite issues to work out.

"For some reason, a developer unknown to us has pushed the story that it is fake or a hoax.

"Grey Group is one of the most creatively awarded global agencies around and we adhere to the highest ethical standards."

Grey Group did not respond to further questions about the app.

However, international news websites such as Reuters, Mashable and Wire, which covered the app's launch last week, conveyed the impression it was functional. No mention was made of it being in testing.

Moas, in a statement on its website, moved to distance itself from the issue, and stressed it was not responsible for developing the app.

"We were dismayed to discover that real-time images were not being used. We have since discontinued our relationship with Grey for Good and spoken candidly about our disappointment to the media," the statement read.

Aided by a slick promotional video and its strong humanitarian concept, I SEA won a bronze award at the Cannes Lions 2016, an international advertising festival held in France, on Monday.

Cannes Lions chairman Terry Savage, who spoke to The Economic Times, said the organisers will wait till the festival is over to investigate the allegations and "take whatever appropriate measures we need to".

A check on the Apple App Store yesterday afternoon confirmed that I SEA was no longer available for download, although a cached version showed that the app was last updated on June 18. It was also not listed as a test app.

Its description on the App Store states: "The app divides the satellite image of the sea into millions of small plots and assigns each user a unique plot of the sea to monitor."

When contacted by The Straits Times, an Apple spokesman declined comment.

According to its website profile, Grey Group has a client list that includes companies such as Procter & Gamble, GlaxoSmithKline, Diageo, Pfizer and Canon. In Asia, the firm says it covers 28 cities in 16 countries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2016, with the headline 'Apple pulls refugee rescue mobile app'. Print Edition | Subscribe