On December 1, IT professional Sandhya Ramesh was travelling to Bangalore from Coimbatore when she saw her Twitter timeline inundated with tweets about the rains in Chennai. Residents were losing connectivity, and there was waist-deep water in many areas.
“There was no coverage on TV,” says Ramesh. So she started retweeting information about the city’s worst-affected areas from her own handle, @sandygrains.
In Delhi, miles away, lawyer and public policy consultant Sowmya Rao was similarly worried – her in-laws were in Chennai. She quickly took to Twitter, putting together a crowd-sourced spreadsheet for affected areas, relief material and contact details of rescue operators. Then, Rao and Ramesh and a few others joined up forces, creating a new handle, @ChennaiRainsOrg to track updates.
By the next day, the rains hadn’t abated. But the spreadsheet had transitioned to a full-fledged website, ChennaiRains.org, built by developer Karthik Balakrishnan in Bangalore. Everyone accessing the site was now directed into two streams – offering help or in need of it – and were dealt with accordingly. The site would emerge as one of the most comprehensive resources for area updates, contacts, aid requests and donation links, as Chennai battled 400mm of rainfall in 48-hours.
When disaster strikes in India, infrastructure is the first to crumble. Government intervention takes time to kick in, till then, there’s chaos despite people wanting to help. This time, a different story unfolded.
Twitter, famous for its outrage, trolls and 140-characters of hate, became the hub for help. As the tweets offering information and aid swelled, so did the need for accuracy. Whose needs were already met? Who was unreachable? “We tweeted that we needed people to verify phone numbers. Almost 100 people responded,” says Ramesh.
With a focus on shelter and rescue, the site was fairly straightforward. They created an additional handle, @AidOffered, helping match relief material (food, medicines, sanitary napkins) with organisations or individuals contributing the same. Once a request was fulfilled, the tweets and entries were deleted from both Twitter and the site.
Over the next few days, the team manning the website grew to 200, including volunteers from the Middle East and the United Kingdom, with 100 just organising aid. They worked in shifts, and used a group chat to co-ordinate.
Holding it together
While ChennaiRainsOrg emerged as a central repository of data, a group of citizens and organisations in Chennai started @ChennaiCares, as part of Chennai Rain Relief (CRR) 2015, sharing lists of relief centres, medical camps and drop-off points.
Using mapping algorithms based on geographical locations, the CRR team worked with the Chennai city corporation, forwarding emergency requests and highlighting the worst off areas. “We needed to organise the database of people seeking as well as those offering help,” says Ashwin Chhabria from Chennai, who created the code for CRR with Govind Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Kidambi in San Francisco.
The CRR team, led by Lata Subramaniam of Bhoomika Trust – an NGO that works towards disaster relief – worked out of the office of Satyam cinemas in Chennai.
Some, like Murali Satagopan, a 26-year-old stand-up comedian and co-founder of a local networking app (@the_Brahminator), were on the ground tweeting updates on relief efforts. “When we asked for volunteers for packing food through Twitter, the response was so overwhelming that we had to send many back. A 50-year-old lady cut 300 kgs of tomatoes, entrepreneurs mopped floors and cooks worked without breaks, helping feed almost 90,000 people over four days,” he says.
Lessons for the future
After the rain stopped, the focus shifted to restoring infrastructure. Satagopan now offers survival kits (utensils, foodgrains, hygiene products) to slumdwellers who lost everything in the deluge. Hashtags like #ChennaiHnH are sharing crucial information on health and hygiene. “We learned so much. When we were sending sanitary napkins, we realised a lot of women didn’t have clean underwear. Belted napkins were the solution. We also learned that in such times bleaching powder is as important as milk powder,” says Rao.
Twitter India played a crucial role by retweeting specific handles and hashtags. “To be able to play an important part in a national emergency makes us proud,” says Raheel Khurshid, head for news, politics and government at Twitter India. “But the real heroes were the ones facilitating efforts on Twitter and on ground.”
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From HT Brunch, December 20
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