Every year, the Northeast Monsoon brings heavy rainfall to India’s east coast. Every year, for the eight years that I have lived in Chennai, the streets have flooded and the roads turned to waterways. Yet life continues more or less as normal.
The last few weeks, however, turned the city upside down as unprecedented amounts of rainfall and rivers and waterbodies bursting their banks inundated the city like it has never seen before. The entire city came together to help those in need, and it was nearly all thanks to social media.
The city last flooded in 2005 and the relief efforts were entirely different. “Everyone relied on the government to distribute aid, and we didn’t know where we could drop off aid or even if we could,” a long time resident of the city told me.
The flood of 2015 was different though. India’s young people took to social media by the millions—125 million according to Facebook. This time, social media enabled people to coordinate a city-wide rescue effort where everyone knew what was needed to help out.
Speaking about the response, Sorav Jain, a leading expert on social media and founder of echoVME said, “Social media changed the paradigm of disaster management. If one part of the city had no power, the other part which had no power cuts were active on social media helping to disseminate the right information.” First responders to the flooding were all on Twitter. As rain pounded down, Chennai’s Twitter users were on-hand to alert others about affected roads and other waterlogged areas. As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time sitting in Chennai’s traffic at the best of times, a little standing water exponentially increases your travel time.
No other medium provides live, real-time information more perfectly than Twitter. No doubt it helped plenty of people get home safely that day.
After CCD, Indiranagar, huge hole right in the middle of the road as you take left after Hero showroom. Avoid it. #Chennairains— Shrinath (@javashri) December 1, 2015
This detailed, accurate road information crowdsourced from the people on the ground isn’t something any other platform or media service could have provided. The radio might have come close, but it’s a one-to-many service, and the information isn’t available on demand.
Google Maps might tell you where the traffic is bad, but it can’t provide qualitative information like where the potholes and hidden dangers are. Even many brands were getting involved with disseminating information. Some even offered immediate assistance to anyone caught up in the incessant rain.
Over the next two days the situation got steadily worse for the citizens. The power was cut to avoid electrocution deaths in submerged areas, and without power, the generators/batteries keeping the mobile networks alive eventually ran out of fuel, cutting off all forms of communication to so many in the city.
This was when the conversation on Facebook really took off. Although Twitter is great for getting live situational updates, the real need of the hour was to be able to connect with friends and family. Since India has more than 125 million Facebook users, tens of thousands of people posted requests for information on the status of specific people living in the city. As these requests came in, strangers were connected by mutual friends and those that had the means to do so were helping out where they could.
Even though I work in social media and have been on Facebook for eight years, for the first time I saw the site being used for what it was intended for: a network enabling connections with people you don’t know. There were people sitting out of different cities in India glued to Facebook and constantly looking to connect people so that information about their loved ones could be obtained.
The following day, requests for connections soon turned into a plea for help by those trapped in their homes without power, food, water or a means to communicate with the outside world. The government rescue teams were landing in Chennai, but they could only cover so much.
Facebook users stepped in, and ordinary people were soon posting updates about the help and support they could offer. Some were able to provide boats, some were able to provide trucks, others had food, some were simply opening up their homes and buildings for people who needed shelter. Some of these posts received thousands of shares from Facebook users.
Once again, Facebook was being used as the ultimate connecting tool. One of my colleagues lives in Coimbatore, and he was coordinating between and connecting those that needed aid and those that could offer it. Word was spread across the social network, with people tagging others in the comments and the status updates.
It didn’t take long before a collaborative Google Doc was set up where people could post aid requirements, assistance that could be offered, places that could offer shelter and more. All of this was being organized by a decentralized web of people that had never met each other or even knew of each other a few days back. Incredibly, the leading person for this effort was 2,000 kilometres away in Delhi.
This document was shared on Facebook over 27,000 times and mentioned on Twitter many thousands times more, which gives some idea of how far and wide the message of the Chennai floods spread.
“It all began with young people.” Jain continued, “Facebook groups had a lot of 35+ people showing interest in volunteering, however it was the younger generation that was the most active group.”
As the civilian rescue teams jumped into action, they started posting updates and photos, showing people a city that they would not have otherwise have seen. There were people wading through waist and neck high water, animals being rescued, boats setting off down flooded streets, crowds of people with outstretched hands for aid. These photos and stories were shared and disseminated across Facebook and WhatsApp. People outside the city and looking for any news of what was going on could keep up to date. There was also the added benefit; people who had no connection to the floods were being exposed to what was going on and raising awareness.
This raised awareness from Facebook on the work being done by ordinary people almost certainly spurred others on to either donate, drop off relief supplies or even just share it on their own wall. For example, the disaster management agency Rapid Response was able to raise over 300,000 rupees (approx USD$6,000) in a matter of days using social media. “By telling stories with pictures on the daily work done to help people we got support of thousands of people from across the world.” said Jain, who also works on the board of directors for Rapid Response.
After a few days it was reported that so much relief effort had been organized that in some areas there was too much aid. Relief centres were getting so many supplies in they had to put out more updates on Facebook to ask for volunteers to help manage the crowds of people donating items.
A week on from the flooding, the stories from Facebook are shifting focus from urgent aid to rehabilitation. This citizen relief effort was initiated and led by the young people of India. Within days they were able to coordinate aid, supplies, rehoming and more. If there’s any case study to prove the popularity and reach of social media, not just in India, then this surely has to be it.