As floods ravaged Chennai last week, throwing the city of 4.9 million into turmoil, communications were among the worst hit. Telephones went dead and arterial roads were blocked in many parts. Cries went out for safety, food, medical help and more. In the middle of all this, one could see the power of the Internet -- and more important, that of what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls the “social graph” -- the web of relationships that social networks build.
Now, Zuckerberg was a much talked-about subject last week alongside the floods in Tamil Nadu as he announced that he and his wife Priscilla would give away as much as 99% of their worth in company stock, estimated at around $45 billion, to social causes.
As it happens the network he co-founded is enabled for a great amount of social work. Facebook, as it did during the recent Paris attacks, activated its “safety” feature that helped those in the affected area announce to their friends that they were safe. But what I found more fascinating, and powerful, was the way tagging, the business of connecting people by mere mention on Facebook, helped during the floods.
I recalled the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, when Internet was still in its infancy in India, when Kutchi people from around the world rallied around a website called Panjokutch.com to raise relief for the affected. There was no Facebook at that time, and what a dramatic the site and its rival Twitter, have made since.
Twitter, of course, is perhaps better for raising public awareness, goading mainstream media, calling out for blood donations and doing a broader range of things.
On Facebook, I saw two IAS officers from Tamil Nadu, Manivannan and Alex Paul Menon, who I know through social networking, were among a handful of volunteers who set up a “virtual control room” during the floods to coordinate aid and relief while government authorities seemed to be struggling. Menon is based in Chattisgarh and Manivannan in Karnataka.
Given the breakdown in communications, the virtualisation dramatically helped efficiency because you could just ping (alert) those connected with the room linked to the lay of the land. A real, physical control room sprang up in Bangalore as well, extending the initiative.
The CEO of Chennai-based software firm Intellect Design Arena, Arun Jain, set up a similar network of his own on Facebook, and led a corporate-style relief mission aided by employees.
Another friend led an initiative to ask people to offer free wi-fi by passing around passwords when their hotspots were working.
An interesting thing is that both time and geography became irrelevant in helping people. I was trying to trace my uncle in a Chennai suburb where phone lines were down and hollered on Facebook for help. I found a woman from New Jersey in the US connecting me to her cousin, who lived in my uncle’s neighbourhood, whose phone was working. He informed me the area was safe.
Another Facebook friend hollered for help to aid someone whose neighbour had died and wanted ice to preserve the body even as waters swirled around the area. I alerted my IAS friend whose control room moved to help. The virtual friend in question who alerted us is actually in the the US.
These are examples of what I call “s-governance” - or social governance, which is a cousin of e-governance. We know the Internet connects us all in so many ways, but social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are adding layers of intelligence that may make some of us feel that Zuckerberg deserves the money he has made.