The August 2018 deluge, the worst floods in Kerala in nearly a century, isolated many people residing in the rain-lashed regions of the state. As landline and mobile networks faltered, conventional modes of communication proved inadequate in broadcasting requests for help. Even as state machinery was gearing up for large-scale disaster management, volunteers across the world started harnessing social media platforms for spontaneous rescue and relief operations.
Project LifeBoat was one such initiative by a team made up of HR managers, IT professionals and rescue management experts, who lent their expertise to monitor and execute rescue requests. The project initially created a helpline based on the missed-call system. The premise was simple: a person called the helpline number; the call would disconnect in 15 seconds followed by a pre-recorded message saying someone would call them back soon. All such calls were usually returned, by one of the volunteers, within 35 seconds. Sooraj Kenoth, an electrical engineer and a team member explained, “Say, if I get a WhatsApp forward with 15 numbers of people who can come and rescue you. You call each number one by one. You called 10 numbers and none of them answered. In a situation where you lose your mental strength, if you are unable to get through a phone call, and if your phone switches off, it will be impossible to trace you... The least that can be done is that the first call you make should be answered.” Volunteers, from Kerala and even outside it, would then determine the identity of victims, location and the urgency of the situation. Pregnant women, children and sick people were given priority. This data was then consolidated and sent to disaster management authorities in the respective districts.
However, the team received no feedback on whether this data was actually being used. “We started receiving calls from relatives who asked, what happened after you handed it over to disaster management?” Kenoth said. “And we have a moral responsibility to respond to that.” This led to the creation of another missed-call service for those who wished to register as rescue volunteers. The second helpline connected volunteers distributing food with volunteers who owned a boat, for example, and they coordinated to direct rescue operations or deliver relief supplies where required. The whole operation was “decentralised and distributed on WhatsApp,” said Kenoth. After the floods, Project LifeBoat’s team developed a software, Assembly of Randomly Connected Hands, or ARCH, to facilitate donations to help people resume their livelihoods.
However, the dispersed nature of social networks has its fallouts. News alerts on rescue efforts were scattered across social media accounts, which meant that many often went unnoticed. A Facebook page, KeralaFloods2018, attempted to bring all such posts on to a single platform—a one-stop source for all relevant information on the floods. A US-based technologist and journalist, Inji Pennu, was put in-charge of tech support for the initiative. She pitched in as a volunteer after seeing a Facebook post by Prasanth Nair, a deputy secretary to the union government, where he sought help for the development of a website for disaster management efforts. Prasanth, who is popular in Kerala and has a large Facebook following, uploaded a series of posts sharing requirements for relief materials, calling for volunteers and busting misinformation.
“On 12 August he told me about a long-term plan to start a website to help the people in flood-hit areas,” said Hari Nair, an employee with the Kerala government, who also worked on KeralaFloods2018. “He had expressed his intention to set up a long-term rehabilitation scheme called Compassionate Keralam.” The next day, a WhatsApp group was formed to discuss the technical aspects of the website, at a time when relief operations were focused on Idukki district and the disaster had not yet spread to the rest of the state.