In Kashmir's massive flood rescue operations, a group of digital volunteers - some based as far away as the United States and Singapore - has emerged as unlikely heroes, whose selfless service on social media has helped save thousands of stranded people across the devastated Himalayan region.
The Twitter account, @jkfloodrelief, set up by the group is among the foremost platforms curating and disseminating relief and rescue information from other users and putting it up on their handle and dedicated website www.jkfloodrelief.org. So useful is the information provided by the group that even the Indian army and the National Disaster Management Authority have been monitoring their updates and acting upon them.
Initially, before communications broke down, the group, working across time zones, depended on the relatives of those stranded and contacts on the ground for information. Their experiences during similar disasters in the past - Uttarakhand floods and Cyclone Phailin - encouraged them to start their efforts early and keep them more coordinated. When telecom networks crashed, the group still managed to relay information through the army.
"Our goal is to update on priority needs for relief, donation collection centers, and donation transportation logistics for public awareness on what to help via donations, where and how, and therefore, avoid mismatching of what is needed vs what is offered," said Hemant Purohit, a 27-year-old computational social scientist on crisis informatics at Kno.e.sis Center in Ohio, United States. The center has set up a dedicated 'Twitrus event' which identifies the most used hashtags and most active users, bringing their tweets together in one click.
The group's efforts supplemented those of the army which used social media extensively to coordinate its relief and rescue operations.Meanwhile, the army has set up a dedicated WhatsApp group connecting all important stakeholders. All information received through social media channels are passed on to this group. Their efforts led to the rescue of a heavily pregnant woman on Tuesday.
The group is amply supported by voluntary organisations and corporates such as Twitter India, Kno.e.sis Center, Google India, Cipla, IndiGo Airlines, DeVil On Wheels, Biocon, and Emami.
"Goonj has supplied close to 2500kg of relief materials, Emami has supplied 560kg of feminine hygeine products, Cipla has supplied 126 cartons of meds, Indigo is supplying a large amount of basic essentials like soap, toothpaste, toothpowder, biscuits, etc. from Mumbai and is on standby to provide foodgrains, Uday Foundation has sent 200kg of relief that includes kids' clothes, woolens and medicines and Biocon is on standby to provide insulin vials," explains Bhavana Upadhyaya, another core member. DeVil On Wheels has helped the organisation build connections with on-ground volunteers.
Social media organisations are not far behind as well."We have advised (them) on things like what kind of hashtags to use, what they should name their handle, etc." explained a Twitter official. Meanwhile, Google has launched a Onebox to give helpline information to the Army, Home Ministry, and NDRF Control Room.