Naureen Aqueel

When disaster strikes, technology makes a difference

Posted on: September 25, 2010

Published in The Express Tribune- Techeye on September 25 2010.

By Naureen Aqueel and Ali Syed

When news of the floods started pouring in through the news media in mid July, there was a virtual lull on the issue in the blogosphere and social media, drawing criticism about selective silence andapathy among Pakistan’s elite. However, Pakistan’s social media community didn’t take long to come forward to disprove such claims.

Campaign for flood relief steps up via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, crowd mapping and geotagging. PHOTO: EXPRESS TRIBUNE

Within weeks the blogosphere and social media forums across Pakistan were abuzz with activity. Awareness campaigns, volunteer mobilisation drives, online donation collections, coordination of relief activities and documentation of relief efforts flooded cyberspace and airwaves of Pakistan via web and mobile phone technology. Millions were collected in online donation drives, thousands were mobilised to volunteer and thousands of survivors received help through the subsequent efforts. Here we look at some of the ways in which technology was and is being used to cope with the floods that have affected millions across Pakistan.

Activate and mobilise

Twitter, SMS and Facebook were the tools of choice when it came to spreading awareness about relief activities and mobilising support.

Twitter users started using the hashtag “#Pkfloods” and “#Pkrelief” for all tweets related to the floods. Activity for the hashtag “#Pkfloods” started off in mid August and peaked on August 23. By August 16, “#Pakistan” had climbed to the top ten trends on Twitter as the magnitude of the disaster began to sink in. According to Twapper Keeper, a tweet archiving website, the archive for “#Pkfloods” created on August 17 contained a total of 57,245 tweets till September 19 (an average of over 1,800 a day). These individual messages contained news, calls for volunteers and donations.

Various non-governmental bodies (NGOs) and individual initiatives formed groups and pages on Facebook and Twitter to coordinate activities and mobilise volunteers. Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) with a Facebook fan page with over 7,000 followers is one such group that posts regular updates and calls for support for donation drives, packaging activities and delivery of relief goods to the flood affected areas.

Future leaders of Pakistan (FPL) is another such youth initiative with over 2,000 fans on Facebook, that has used the social networking platform to gather volunteers, seek donations for and document the relief missions it has sent to areas like Swat, Thatta, Tangi, Charsadda, Mianwali etc, adopting villages in these areas one by one.

Similarly, another initiative by the name Help in a Box with a Facebook fan page of over 5,000 followers found that volunteers for their relief activities swelled to over 1,000 in each round after they officially announced the activities on Facebook, Twitter and text messages.

Linking the pocket to technology

Digital and social media were utilised to make calls for donations for flood relief. Not only were calls made identifying different collection points where donations could be made in person, the internet and text messages were also used to donate generously to flood relief activities directly. Dr Awab Alvi, member of Offroad Pakistan which sent seven relief missions to the flood affected areas, shared that his organisation in collaboration with SA Relief was able to collect $31,000 only through online donations. “I think I did make a difference by using social media,” he said.

Various other organisations like Khushaal Pakistan and other international NGOs also provide the option of donating online through Paypal accounts. This has proven particularly convenient for expatriates or foreigners who wish to contribute their part.

Various organisations also started “text-to-donate” campaigns offering mobile service users a convenient way to contribute and make a difference. The Express Helpline Trust for example started the “D for Donate” campaign whereby people could contribute Rs10 by typing D and sending it to the customised shortcode 2471.

Mapping the disaster

Perhaps the most fascinating of all uses of technology in the current flood crisis is the use of crowd maps. Using the “Ushahidi” open source software, Pakreport is one initiative that creates a real-time map providing a comprehensive and constantly updated picture of the situation on-ground based on online/SMS-based reports coming from volunteers in different areas.

People send in information via text messages to 3441, email or web and the information is then plotted on the map, notifying relief agencies and NGOs working in the area. Founded by Faisal Chohan, the website which has been recognised by Amnesty International, Unicef and others has so far logged 1,621 reports across Pakistan’s flood affected regions.

Geotagging one crisis at a time

Another interesting technology used for identifying and communicating needs in the flood affected areas is the use of geotagging in live tweets on Twitter. This technique has been avidly used by people like Sana Saleem, Project coordinator Sindh of Future Leaders of Pakistan, for tagging flood victims’ needs in various areas. Through geotagging, Saleem would upload her location via GPS on her tweets, along with pictures of the area, highlighting whatever was needed to provide relief. In one incident, Saleem and her team came across a child suffering from cleft palate in a school camp in Hyderabad. She tweeted about the possibility of an organisation or a surgeon who could help them and a contact on Twitter found a surgeon who was willing to carry out the surgeries free of cost.

The data that people in the field upload through geotagging is also used by relief organisations such as the Asian Development Programme to form assessments of the damage and the required relief.

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