As Sri Lanka struggles to deal with the devastation caused this week by Cyclone Roanu, which left floods, landslides and at least 58 people dead in its wake, citizens are pitching in to help with government relief initiatives. Assisting with these efforts are local start-ups.
“As start-ups, we can bring to the table innovations, new technology and new thinking," said Jiffry Zulfer, Chief Executive Officer of PickMe, a local taxi-hailing app in the vein of Uber and Ola.
Less than 24 hours after a landslide on Tuesday flattened the inland town of Aranayake, located over 100 km east of Colombo, PickMe introduced a “flood relief” button that allowed users to call for a vehicle to pick up donations and have them delivered to the Sri Lankan Red Cross free of charge.
A day later, the start-up introduced an “SOS” button so that those trapped by floods and landslides could mark their location via GPS and call for help. The feature led to over a thousand requests and 150 successful boat rescues, company officials said. The app has also introduced an “air lift” button, which resulted in 40 requests and three successful rescue attempts, again through the use of GPS.
“We redirect SOS and air lift requests to the military who take it from there but we’ve heard moving stories of pregnant women and children being rescued thanks to the use of GPS technology,” said PickMe CEO Zulfer.
Start-up content platforms also played a large role in helping to provide accurate and up-to-date information in the country's worst natural disaster in a decade, and helped residents find trustworthy aid agencies through which they could channel donations.
Roar.lk, a news and current affairs website launched in 2014, set about running a live blog in the wake of the floods, providing viewers with information from a plethora of sources, including state agencies, mainstream media and Facebook and Twitter. Though live blogs are common enough in other places, no mainstream Sri Lankan news site had adopted the format before in response to disasters.
“Social media has been useful in helping to mobilise relief movements but can also be a den of misinformation,” said Gazala Anwer, the editor-in-chief of Roar.lk. “The unethical use of social media could lead to needless panic as it did when rumours spread yesterday of water and fuel cuts. What we tried to do was cut through the noise and try to offer a stream of accurate updates.”
Another start-up, food and travel website, Yamu.lk, responded to news of the floods by posting a “How to help” page a day after news of the landslides in Aranayake. The page lists charitable organisations and relief efforts for people to donate to or engage with and was also translated into Sinhala. The post has since received over 15,000 views, with dozens adding to the list in the comments section.
“We’re a food website but we ended up doing coverage of the floods because of the spread of bad information,” said Yamu.lk director Indrajit Samarajiva. “Social media is important but it exists in an ecosystem that requires other parts ‒ like government coordination ‒ to work. Sri Lankans are wonderful during crises and social media has helped mobilise an immediate response, but without coordination a lot of resources are going to places that no longer need them.”
Rescue teams are under-equipped
Though citizens are doing their bit, the efforts are, as to be expected, being headed by the official agencies. Ironically, the state forces appeared to be under-trained and lacking access to the same level of technology as some of the Colombo-based start-ups.
This appeared evident when images posted online by journalists showed young soldiers wading waist-deep through mud at the Aranayake disaster site, using only wooden sticks to prod debris in search of buried survivors and the bodies of the dead.
Said Zulfer of the PickMe taxi service, “When we hit the ground, some of the forces were surprised at the level of technology and expertise we had to offer. But we were happy pool our resources with the state to speed-up relief and recovery efforts.”
For many, images of the floods and landslides evoke unhappy memories of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But much has changed since then. “We are now better equipped to deal with recovery exercises than ever before,” said Zulfer.