Thursday, December 3, 2015

Help pours in via social media

Chennai, a large metro city of southern India with a population of around 5 million is facing unprecedented floods, claiming more than 250  lives. Social media has emerged as a effective tool to augment government efforts for rescue and relief. The following article is taken from THE HINDU, a leading english daily of southern India.

Meet some of the Internet warriors who stayed calm during the crisis and became the first line of defense.

For the last two days there has been a force in Chennai more powerful than the rains pounding the city. Social media. While bridges collapsed, floodgates opened and people were confined to their homes, citizens came together on social media – Twitter and Facebook – to coordinate efforts to send or seek help with accommodation, food and rescue relief.
The people behind the joint effort at, a Google spreadsheet listing helpline numbers, aid offers and requests, rescue requests, volunteer details and accommodation details has been, and is still being, widely shared, so that people can fill in details or provide necessary information to volunteers. The volunteers have been working all night – people from other cities and countries pitched in and took turns to stay awake. Soon, Twitter India shared the link and The Hindu hosted it on their website. Some volunteers kept track of certain hashtags including #chennairains, #chennaivolunteer, #chennairescue and #chennairainshelp.
A crowdsourced effort to map inundated roads in Chennai, along with information on vulnerable and water logged points and flood relief camps was put together by Arun Ganesh (see box). And as of 11.42 a.m. on Thursday, 5, 476 roads were flooded. Chennai Rains, an independent weather blogging community, put out regular updates on the situation of rains. Uber Chennai offered free rides all day and included trucks to help with carrying necessary supplies such as medicines and food, it said on its blog.
Individuals such as 22-year-old Harshitha Ravi helped both online and offline. “I feel like social media has been our saviour through all this. Even before heading out and helping, I had to check social media to ensure I was going to the right places, which required most help. Work online mainly includes circulating the right information and connecting demand with supply,” she says. Although Anush Rajasekaran and five of his friends were out distributing 18 to 19 crates of biscuits and drinking water yesterday, he plans to help more online.
To find out info on acco, food, relief:
Constant weather updates: Action/ Chennai Rains on Twitter
For news updates and information on Facebook: Chennai Memes, Chennai Rain Relief 2015 - CRR, Chennai Floods Hotline.
What is it about social media that is an effective rallying point during disasters like this? During the Paris attacks, the #PorteOuverte or the ‘open-door’ initiative connected people who were looking for shelter. It popped up on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and opened doors for those looking for support. During the Jammu and Kashmir floods of 2014, people posted on Facebook relief and donation pages while Twitter used #JKFloodRelief and #JKFloodAlert to find information on missing people and rescuing them.
But what’s social media without the people behind it? Take the boys who run the Chennai Memes Facebook page, known usually for their hilarious trolls, who donned a different hat during crisis. Since the rains started, the boys have been updating statuses to share information about stranded residents, rescue operations, resource requirement and news updates. “We’ve helped many people find shelter or contact their loved ones. We also managed to get resources and volunteers for NGOs and other good samaritans who are mobilising help.” The biggest problem, they say, has been outdated information. But their work is not restricted to the internet alone, their admins have also been available on the ground, gathering food and distributing it. “Not many have access to Internet right now; that’s the biggest problem.”
With phone connectivity a big problem in the state and city, the Internet is a big boon for those looking and offering help. Berty Ashley’s rescue effort with his friends is guided mainly by Facebook posts and tweets calling out for help. “The internet is our lifeline now.” He rationalises that sending out a tweet elicits multiple responses, and says that collective reasoning and thought is more helpful in such situations. The need of the hour, he says, is people who own vehicles that can manoeuvre their way through difficult terrain. But for people who are unable to leave their homes and are still keen on helping, “just be an info hub.”
It’s an opinion that AM Aravind also voices. The Bangalore-based entrepreneur and brand consultant started working on a blog updating traffic information and road status inside and outside the city. His verified tweet on Chennai-Bangalore traffic proved useful – it garnered many thankful responses and more than a hundred retweets and counting. The one thing he says people sitting at home can do is “call and verify if the information is accurate and update.” At least those who have access to social media. Like the rumour on Porur Lake breaching which was not true and had a lot of residents scrambling and in panic. “People who are on Twitter-FB can keep a look out for such information and verify them. That would be really helpful.” Systems Engineer Vishwa, who also volunteered online, adds, “People should take care not to panic, first and then not pass unverified information to others. Also as many landlines were working (with mobile networks being down most of the time), it helps to call and check up on people nearby or based on requests.”
However, not everyone’s sitting by a desk. Sundar Ramu, who has been very active on social media since the rains started, is also out on the roads, helping with rescues. “There has been a deluge of calls and SOS messages. But we’ve also had a lot of volunteers stepping up. The challenge now is to try and get things organised, especially with the army stepping in.” The biggest problem, he says, is assessing who needs immediate attention. What with communication lines being down and power outrages being rampant, any sort help is welcome. “If you are safe and out of harm’s way, you are helping by simply not becoming a liability. You can work within your apartment or street; form teams to take care of the elderly, children and pets, and coordinate with those who are not tech savvy.” For those with access to electricity and social media, keep your eyes out for ways to pitch in: there’s always lots of help needed.
Arun Ganesh, a Bangalore-based map analyst, immediately set to work creating the crowdsourced map on November 27 and 28. "It was an idea that started off with colleagues. We saw reports coming in about the flooding and we didn't have a clear picture of what was happening, on areas worst affected and so on. There was no granular idea on geographical conditions and we were really curious about the situation and decided to build a simple tool. It took us a day to put together, and we shared it on social media and people started picking it up. We wanted to use AA non-proprietary, open model (a software) using OpenStreetMap project where Chennai has already been mapped fairly well. We used this and elevation models from ISRO and quickly did an analysis of low lying areas - you'll see the darker areas on the map are low lying, we also used data from the UN which included analysis of satellite images of stagnated water.”

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