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.
By 15 August, the magnitude of the disaster rose sharply across the state. Prasanth set aside his long term plan and requested the group to attend to rescue efforts immediately. The first step was the creation of KeralaFloods2018. Inji Pennu initially expected about 15 calls for help a day. “And then it just exploded,” she said. “We started getting calls. We started getting SOS messages.” The team ensured that details about the number of people to be rescued were systematised before they were sent to rescue forces. These included descriptions of locations, with the latitude and longitude, phone numbers, time-stamps and the contacted control room. Individuals from all over the world, including the US, Germany and South Africa, responded in overwhelming numbers to field these calls, creating what seemed like a virtual call centre, functioning round the clock across different time zones.
Besides online helplines, physical call centres were set up in nine locations in Chennai, Bengaluru, Mysore and different parts of Kerala. Some of them were IT companies with pre-existing infrastructure which expedited rescue efforts. “They set up three teams internally. For example, Sysfore, Bangalore made teams named alpha, beta, gamma. Alpha team attended all the calls. Beta reconfirmed the information coming from the calls. They connected with them to check if they are genuine. Gamma team monitored and followed up with rescue teams on the ground,” Hari explained.
Volunteers were stationed in all district control rooms to ensure that information from online groups was personally communicated to authorities. Despite these efforts, things did not always go smoothly. There were instances where the navy reached correct locations but because the Google coordinates were not precise enough, food supplies were dropped away from the house. As of today, KeralaFloods2018 is a full-fledged website, compassionatekeralam.org, which among other initiatives, handles requests for sponsorship of children’s education and support for families from flood-ravaged homes.
Rescue efforts by individuals were also aided by data available on keralarescue.in, a website under the aegis of Kerala government. The site was developed by a group of eight volunteers from the Kerala chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Muraleedharan Manningal, head of the state e-governance mission team who led the team, told me they built the site in a day. “We started the discussion around 9 am in the morning,” he said. “We launched the initial version of the site around 9.30-10 that night.” The site was designed to be user friendly, to cater to people who could access it in an emergency. Minimal information was sought from those requesting help or those registering to volunteer. Two days after the launch, the government stepped in and decided to promote the site. “Many private organisations browsed the data on it and privately offered support, especially the student community of IITs,” Manningal said.
Eventually, Google partnered with the website too. Data on relief camps and collection centres came from the government while the map featuring flooded streets was marked by Google itself. “Google has a set of algorithms which says that there is no traffic on a particular road. They also used satellite images to monitor showers in an area. So they had algorithms in the back end to say that that area is flooded,” said Santhosh Kurup, CEO of the Information and Communication Technology Academy, who was also a part of the team that worked on keralarescue.in. Even the public could edit this map real-time and mark an area as flooded. Google would then verify these inputs. “They will not just publish it. They take the data and if there are multiple number of entries from the same point, then they flag it back as flooded,” Kurup told me.
Newsrooms of Malayalam channels also became helpline centres during the peak of the disaster. “We were receiving calls from several people,” Johny Lukose, the director of news at Manorama News told me. Proliferation of fake news had also become a major concern at the same time. “There were rumours that a dam has broken. We started an initiative called ‘Crosscheck’ to bust such claims, which were displayed on the news and online as well,” Lukose said.
“It was a time to stand with the government. A blame game in that situation would not be appreciated. The media and the opposition were aware of this. Everyone rose to the occasion,” he said, commenting on the measured coverage of the disaster in the state.
The team at News18 Kerala, led by editor Rajeev Devaraj, wanted to give a positive spin to their reportage in circumstances that otherwise could have fuelled a fear psychosis. “We introduced something called ‘Good News’ ticker. Usually, a disaster causes panic among people. For instance, the ticker would display information about reduced water levels,” said a staff member at the channel. They also circulated a WhatsApp number on social media, where people could send queries to verify information floating online. The channel would then connect with the concerned authorities to check whether the news was factual or a rumour.
Personal social media accounts of journalists also became a route to disseminate information regarding rescue requests and flood updates. Varun Ramesh, chief sub-editor of the multimedia section of Asianet News, shared public calls for rescue on his personal account and posted requirements of relief materials for flood-hit areas. “People approached me as I am associated with the Asianet brand. They were sure that the information I share would be verified,” Ramesh told me. Unlike WhatsApp, where it was difficult to verify any news, Facebook’s tagging option alerted social media users like Ramesh to a piece of information which could be crosschecked by them immediately. Social media allowed them to personally attend to requests for help, Ramesh told me. “While the media would say that one whole area is in a problem, we drew the focus towards the people there. I think that’s the basic difference between social media and mass media,” he said.
There was one point reiterated by everyone I spoke to. Volunteers who came to aid flood victims were strangers, brought together by a commitment to overcome a disaster of unprecedented proportions. As Ramesh put it, “It was a chain of anonymous people across the world. I worked only as one part of it.”