How an Ypsi auto software company helped feed Turkey's stray dogs during the pandemic

This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.

Osman Korkmaz and Sue Barker have lengthy experience solving problems for the auto industry, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought them an unexpected challenge: saving stray dogs in Turkey. 

The Ypsilanti-based husband-and-wife team had worked together at Ford for a decade before developing ProjectSynergy, a cloud-based platform to manage the automotive prototype build process. The platform is designed to eliminate human error and costly setbacks for the auto industry. 

When the pandemic forced many employees to work from home, those already using ProjectSynergy's platform were well situated. Users can log in to the cloud-based system from anywhere. But far from the epicenter of the U.S. auto industry, Figen Can, a friend in Korkmaz' native Turkey, had a case for ProjectSynergy to crack. 

"One of the things that is very different in Turkey is that there are a lot of stray animals on the streets," Korkmaz says. "Neighbors volunteer to provide food and shelter — not in their homes, but on the street." 

There are hundreds of feeding points in cities and villages across the country, but it became apparent that many dogs were still going hungry. 

"In the pandemic, a lot of people just couldn't get out of their houses to feed them," Korkmaz says. 

Can, a self-described animal lover based in Ankara, Turkey's capital, brought the issue to ProjectSynergy's attention at a hackathon devoted to solving problems caused by COVID-19. Can used to live in Rochester Hills and met Korkmaz through the Turkish American Cultural Association of Michigan.

"There are approximately 8 million stray animals in Turkey," Can says. "They were suffering on the streets and breeding out of control. They couldn't find any food. They started to troll around the city, then they caused traffic accidents. If they are fed regularly, they don't get hit by cars and they don't fight with each other." 

Can's proposal to help the animals ranked in the hackathon's top 10 and even won a prize from Facebook. Still, without additional funding, she couldn't find a developer to take the project to the next level. That's when she called Korkmaz. 

Quickly, ProjectSynergy staff realized the same inventory management and chat functions they'd built for auto part suppliers could serve Turkey's volunteer animal feeders. They developed an app called BirCan, which translates to "One Life," that users anywhere can download. A map highlights feeding sites where supplies are needed. When a volunteer delivers food or water to a site, users see that the task has been completed. Collectively, volunteers can then focus on other sites that need attention. They avoid duplicating efforts and are able to build a larger, more coordinated effort overall. On the back end, it's exactly the same platform ProjectSynergy uses to manage prototype builds.

To date, BirCan has 1,000 users, supports 100 feeding sites throughout Turkey, and has helped 1,500 animals. Volunteers are using the app to work with municipalities to vaccinate and neuter strays. They've been able to connect vets with sick dogs, and in one case the app even facilitated a pet adoption. Down the road, Can would like to see BirCan used to save endangered species. Korkmaz imagines it could be employed in relief efforts after natural disasters. 

"We call the app 'One Life' because one life matters for us," says Can. "So far, many lives have been rescued because of plain communication."

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.

Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications. 

Photos courtesy of ProjectSynergy.