How Apps and HAMs are saving lives

‘Water has reached first floor. It is rising quickly. Urgent Help needed. Very little drinking water or food. We are at this address…’, and it ends with ‘PLS SHARE’. The Facebook status was calmly written in the face of impending danger. The post is made visible for all to see; it travels multiple times around the globe and it doesn’t take long before people start responding, ‘I can get supplies,’ one replies, ‘I’ve reported to concerned people in your area,’ another replied and ‘We will be there in 2 hrs,’ a volunteer group posts.

This was Chennai and her neighbouring cities in south India, saving themselves from flood waters while the world’s attention was focused on the Paris terror incident and the Indian national media turned into a circus over a Bollywood actor’s misinformed, misconstrued and misplaced comments (the contents of which are not relevant to this post).

Despite the death toll crossing 300, without social media interaction and the marriage of old and new technologies the tragedy could have been even greater. The Facebook post above (not actual words) is one among the thousands being posted online and shared to gather resources, such as manpower and relief supplies. This is social media turned life saver. And joining Facebook was Twitter, where hashtags such as #chennairains and #chennaifloods helped track calls for help, and not far behind was WhatsApp where strangers joined local volunteer ‘groups’ to which they could contribute. And when communication infrastructure broke down the HAM radio operators kicked in, forming a net of radio operators working across India and from within the flood hit areas to feed information to the public and to the government rescue agencies.

The floods have been attributed to unprecedented rains coupled with poor urban planning. With rising flood waters people took to social media platforms to call for help. So where did it all go right?

Trust – You have one mutual friend
A chaotic environment always leads to irrelevant or inaccurate information being generated. But as crowd sourced information grew, so did a rigorous peer review process set itself in place to filter and remove any unwanted piece of information. Posts on social media were being verified by people using any means possible. Common people became investigative journalists and news broadcasters; Photos and videos monitored rising flood waters and rescue effort. Accountability and transparency gave raise to trust and thus reassured people in the effectiveness of this communication method. It also proved to foster goodwill as more and more volunteers made themselves traceable by making their contact details public.

Tamil is the language spoken in the flood affected state of Tamil Nadu and further differences arose with different regional dialects. The language barrier was evident when government rescue agencies from other states reached Tamil Nadu and were instantly hampered by it. Thanks to the multilingual nature of the social media platforms, people were able to publish their post in their local language which resulted in quicker responses but help was also at hand for people without the knowledge of Tamil. Netizens became translators; posts in Tamil were translated to English and vice versa and reposted. For the HAM radio operators, they overcame the language problem by simply writing down what they heard in their own language and then repeating it verbatim. This was of major help to migrant workers who had travelled from other states to Tamil Nadu.

A great pat on the back goes for the tech savvy youths armed with smartphones when it came to coordinating and managing resources. As relief material and volunteers began to arrive, the need to coordinate people and to ensure quick delivery to affected areas became critical especially in the case of distribution of perishable goods. People took to tagging and joining groups. There were groups who collected food, groups to rescue animals and groups to transport people. They sifted through huge amounts of information and published reliable posts. Houses, colleges and community buildings became distribution hubs. Travel maps were posted and safe routes were identified. Contact details were published from whom help could be obtained based on the area they were in. Feedback from those stuck in their houses was fed into social media resulting in identifying important relief materials needed.

The flood waters are receding and the cities are slowing heading back to normalcy but the tempo hasn’t slowed. Clean up operations are in full swing and tremendous examples of humanity were witnessed during and in the aftermath. This episode is an example of old technology complemented by new. People interacted and actively engaged for the community as a whole, this is an example of going beyond the ‘Likes’. Social media is out there and we need to harness it.

But I would like to close off in the words of an unknown Chennai city dweller that had this to say when he went on camera for a national news channel. The message is incredibly simple – “Respect nature and Nature will respect you.”


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