How social media showed its unique power of crowdsourcing during the Chennai floods

Ankit Lal’s book ‘India Social’ examines the enormous impact of social media on politics, protest, activism, crowdsourcing and knowledge-sharing.

You would not generally associate Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, with floods. A bustling metropolitan that is home to more than 7 million people, it faces water shortages year after year. However, in November 2015, a cyclonic weather cycle began to affect the state, with the city receiving 1,049 mm (41.3 in) of rain in that month alone, the highest since November 1918, when 1,088 mm (42.8 in) of rainfall had been recorded. The Chennai International Airport recorded 266 mm of rainfall in 24 hours on 15 November. By 17 November, much of the city had flooded, even though the rains had stopped.

The rains brought Chennai to a standstill. Schools, colleges and offices were closed for the most part, while lakes that had been absolutely dry for more than two decades breached their banks, leading to submerging surrounding areas. Water rose up to the second floor in some localities, with intermittent power cuts and limited mobile connectivity across the city.

And then came the 1 December deluge. On that fateful day, in just a span of 12 hours, Chennai received a record- breaking 272 mm of rainfall. By 8 December, Chennai had recorded 539 mm of rain, as opposed to the monthly average of 191 mm. The incessant rain put pressure on the already overburdened drains and, by the afternoon of 1 December, power supplies had been suspended to 60 per cent, while several city hospitals had stopped functioning. For the first time since its inception in 1878, The Hindu did not publish a print edition on 2 December as workers were unable to reach the press. The Southern Railways cancelled all major train services and the Chennai International Airport was closed until 6 December. Chennai was officially declared a disaster area on the evening of 2 December.

It was in this crisis that individuals mobilised on social media like never before.

Mobile connectivity was not as damaged as other information services, and social media, accessed on smartphones, became the number one source of information during the crisis. Having a fully charged mobile phone became such a critical asset that, along with food, water and other relief materials, power banks were distributed to allow people to charge their phones.

Several emergency numbers had been set up, but getting through to those numbers was difficult. The veracity of the numbers also became an issue. As a result, Twitter and Facebook became the “go-to” places for everything related to rescue efforts, from keeping track of the worst-affected areas and their requirements, to putting out SOS calls or volunteering for help.

Facebook activated its “safety check” feature – which allowed users to mark themselves as “safe” on their profile during a crisis – while several Facebook groups like Chennai Rain Relief provided basic tips on how to rescue people and lists of dos and don’ts, apart from coordinating rescue efforts. Facebook also became a hub for those who were trying to contact their families.

One ingenious resource that was circulated widely during the floods was a crowdsourced effort that mapped inundated roads in the city. Over 2,500 flooded roads were added to the city’s map via social media, which was put together by engineer and information designer, Arun Ganesh.

The Chennai floods were a superb example of the power of collective effort. Users across social media channels came together to offer shelter, food, transport, and even a place for people to charge their phones. SOS messages asking ground teams to rescue stranded family members also went back and forth, and there were many who offered their homes and offices to those who were stranded.

Perhaps the most simple yet effective tool during the floods was the website

It began as a simple Google spreadsheet. Sowmya Rao was trying to help her uncle and aunt figure out whether it was safe to stay in their house in suburban Chennai or move to a friend’s place. When she found out that the area they lived in was under severe risk of flooding, she relayed the message to them. But she felt helpless about the countless others who were facing the same plight as her relatives. Acting on a suggestion by another Twitter user, she created the Google spreadsheet that went on to become the website

The idea was simple: crowdsource details about those who could offer shelter, and pass it on to those who were tweeting about rising waters. A hastily put-together spreadsheet soon blossomed into a multi-faceted, volunteer-driven, highly energetic online movement to help Chennai, and ended up being used by the general public, police officers, government officials and celebrities alike.

Rao later wrote in a blog on Twitter India that the entire operation was run “almost exclusively on Twitter”.

To segregate pleas for help from updates on rain and volunteering efforts, users attributed tweets to one of the three hashtags: #ChennaiRainsHelp, #ChennaiRescue, and #ChennaiVolunteer to systematically organise all incoming tweets. Twitter was also active in ensuring that this information reached as many people as possible by promoting it on its official India page.

Karthik Balakrishnan, the web developer behind, told an English daily that he got the idea to make the website after he privately messaged Sandhya Ramesh, another Twitter user who was actively coordinating relief efforts on Twitter at the time. She, in turn, linked him to Sowmya Rao’s Google spreadsheet. Balakrishnan and Rao discussed turning the spreadsheet into a website at 2 am on 2 December, following which Balakrishnan booked the domain and posted the site by 3.30 am.

Raheel Khursheed, head of news, politics and government, Twitter India and South East Asia, says, “Twitter is the first port of call for people responding to a disaster as we’re a live, real-time public platform. The advantages are manifold. You can have conversations around organising relief at scale, you can form groups quickly, you can group DM with 10 or 15 people and start a conversation around coordinating relief efforts.”

Twitter tied up with all the volunteer groups who were working together on the #ChennaiRainsHelp campaign ­ including InCrisisRelief, The News Minute, Airtel, Zomato, Goonj, Bhumi, Uday Foundation and Practo – with data support from Delhi-based SocialCops. “The partners we were working with were responding to the disaster in their own way, so we thought it may be a good idea to just get everyone onto the same page, and help them with data,” Khursheed says.

By 5 December, the team began facing a new issue. They had data from the beginning of the floods, but did not know how many of those who had requested help still needed it. With Exotel, a cloud telephony provider, developed an SMS system which sent out messages to the listed numbers. Balakrishnan told a website, “The SMS basically said you have three numbers here. If you still needed help with food and aid, please give a missed call on one number. If you were safe, give a missed call on another number, and if you were in urgent need of help, a third number was given. All this data was tied into our database, and we coordinated people to drive relief efforts accordingly.”

A volunteer team of at least 50-60 people kept track of everything online, manually matching relief efforts on a rotation basis 24 hours a day.

It required knowledge of the city and the language: Tamil. Getting a location from a plain text address to marking it on Google Maps also required manual effort.

“For about 75 to 80 percent of the areas, the team was able to get the latitude-longitude coordinates on a map by searching on Google’s Location API. For the [remaining] 20 percent, where the landmarks were vague, the team coordinated over phone calls. On average, each person of the now 200-member team made about 200 to 250 phone calls over a period of four days. The phone calls were made to coordinate with people on the ground, to verify and find out if people had gotten any assistance,” Balakrishnan said.

Rao says in her blog post, “In less than 7 days, the crowd- sourcing effort taught many of us the importance of efficient coordination as well as [the] veracity and authenticity of data. The biggest advantage of using Twitter and other online media here was real-time data relaying. People on the ground got to know updates from other areas almost instantaneously thanks to tweets. This enabled efficient volunteer coordination, not only on the field, but also with outstation supplies and distribution. This was a great demonstration of how information is truly powerful.”

Excerpted with permission from India Social: How Social Media Is Leading The Charge And Changing The Country, Ankit Lal, Hachette India.

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Uninterrupted power supply during natural disasters can be a reality

The right material can protect electricity poles from getting damaged even during natural disasters.

According to a UN report, natural disasters in the last decade have occurred almost twice as often compared to two decades ago, with Asia being the hardest hit. The report reveals that the number of such events had gone up 14% annually between 2005 and 2015 compared to the period 1995-2014. Such findings have driven countries like UK and USA to accelerate their resilience building measures. ‘Resilience’ implies preparedness and having a robust coping mechanism to deal with the damage wrought by hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and other violent natural events. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has even launched a campaign called Making Cities Resilient which suggests, among other things, increasing the resilience of infrastructure for crucial services including electrical power, transport, healthcare and telecommunications.

India’s vulnerability to natural disasters

The UN report lists India as third among the countries hit by the highest number of weather related disasters in the past decade. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in its Annual Disaster Review for 2014 also listed India among the five countries most frequently hit by natural disasters.

According to the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project, almost 5,700 kilometers of India’s 7,500 kilometers of coastline are highly vulnerable to the impact of tropical cyclones and related meteorological hazards. Research by Verisk Maplecroft also shows that 82% of the population in India are exposed to natural hazards, compared with 50% of the population in China.

What is also disturbing is the increased vulnerability of populous Indian cities to the effects of these natural disasters, caused by growing population density, haphazard construction activities and inadequate preparedness. The recent Mumbai floods which crippled the city in August 2017, for example, were exacerbated by the city’s out-of-date drainage system and unbridled construction over the city’s natural nullahs, which otherwise could have effectively drained excess water. A report on World Disasters by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), lists Mumbai among the 10 most vulnerable cities in terms of floods and earthquakes. A survey shows that, on an average, 21 Indian cities scored between 2.5 to 4 points out of 10 on governance parameters that measure preparedness for disasters.

Regions like the North East in India are particularly susceptible to natural disturbances like earthquakes, floods and landslides. According to the National Flood Commission, Assam, for example, accounts for 9.4% of the total flood prone area in the country. The commission estimated that due to floods, Assam suffered a loss of Rs, 3,100 crores in the past five decades. The whole of Brahmaputra Valley in Assam is in fact considered one of the most hazard prone regions in the country, with more than 40% of its land (3.2 million hectares) being susceptible to flood damage.

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Ensuring power supply during natural contingencies

When typhoon Rammasun hit Guangdong in China, more than 70,000 concrete and metal poles collapsed. Earlier, in the aftermath of the massive Chuetsu earthquake in Japan in 2004, about 3,400 utility poles supporting communication cables were broken or toppled.

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There have been other instances of concrete and metal poles being completely destroyed by natural forces. In tornadoes that ripped through Florida in the late 90s for example, even 100-foot spun concrete transmission poles tested to withstand 250 mph winds, toppled. Ice storms such as the 1998 North American Ice Storm caused over a 1,000 steel towers to collapse under the accumulated weight of the ice. Some of these incidents led to the continued use of wood as a preferred material for utility poles. But environmental concerns emerged due to the use of certain chemicals for treatment of the wooden poles. Additionally, wooden poles are also vulnerable to natural disasters - in the earlier mentioned ice storm, over 30,000 wooden poles were found to have collapsed in addition to the steel ones. In the last few years, research has been conducted into the use of various other materials for utility poles even as wood, steel and concrete remained popular choices. But while all of them have their advantages, they also come with distinct disadvantages.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.