How crowdsourcing helped organize aid during Chennai's floods

People affected by flooding in Chennai, India, last month reached for food as it was distributed. Before many forms of government aid arrived, some Chennai residents were coordinating offers for shelter and supplies via social media and a Google spreadsheet. (AP Photo/Arun Sankar K)

To some, Google’s spreadsheets are a convenient office tool for collaborating with co-workers. To others, they’re simply a free alternative to purchasing expensive software such as Microsoft’s Excel. But for a few days last month, the tool became a lifeline to many in the flood-ravaged Indian city of Chennai.

Chennai is a coastal city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The city of 4.5 million people is known internationally as the home to many information technology companies and a robust knowledge economy. But it’s also a place with a lot of illegal and ill-planned urban development — and as it turned out, inadequate flood preparedness plans.

The rains started in mid-November and fell relentlessly for weeks. By December 1, huge swathes of the city were submerged, train services were disrupted and the international airport was shut down. At one city hospital, 14 patients died after power and oxygen supplies failed.

That’s when thousands of people turned to social media, and eventually to a Google spreadsheet.

As the power went off and stranded citizens waded through knee-deep water, Twitter emerged as a hub for rescue and relief. Twitterati within and outside Chennai started retweeting information about affected areas. #ChennaiRainsHelp and #ChennaiFloods became some of the most used hashtags in India, directing people to information on where to find shelter, food or a recharge for their mobile phones. Some parts of the city were more affected than others, and pockets of electricity and internet access could be found.

[See: Don’t blame nature for Chennai floods — blame bad urban planning]

“After people realized that some people around them were stranded, they began updating their social media status with offers for those people to be accommodated in their houses,” recalls Harshitha Murali, a student involved with the initiative, @ChennaiRainsOrg.

The hundreds of offers of a roof to sleep under became their own deluge — they needed some organization to be useful. A volunteer in Delhi assembled aid offers into a Google spreadsheet that anyone could add to or edit. As the link to that spreadsheet began to be shared, it grew into a crowd-sourced and continually updated clearinghouse of addresses and phone numbers where people who needed help could find it.

Thanks to the spreadsheet, people knew who was stranded where. They could mount a rescue themselves, or ask someone else to do so. Volunteers such as Murali, who kept updating the spreadsheet, were equipped with concrete data to help government agencies gain a clearer picture of who needed what. They could call the police about someone who was stranded or out of food or water.

As the city continued to be lashed by rain, the spreadsheet morphed into a full-fledged website, ChennaiRains.org.

Two groups of people accessed the site — those who needed help urgently and those who could offer help. It became a comprehensive online database for area updates, local contacts, aid requests and donation links. The team that operated the site had volunteers not just from Chennai but from all over the world. It was a good example of how in a disaster, people in a community band together to help one another long before more official forms of government aid arrive.  

And it was not the only social media-led initiative triggered by the Chennai flood.

Srikanth Kannan is involved with ChennaiRains.com, a community of weather bloggers which kept residents informed about the worst water-logged streets. Its twitter handle is @ChennaiRains. Other volunteers picked up the alerts and helped those most in need. This community was especially effective in coordinating food distribution among stranded residents.

Most of the bloggers did not know each other personally. Most had not spoken to one another over the phone. Now that the flooding emergency is over, they have decided to stay together and support the cause of education in Chennai. As a start, they have helped provide notebooks to many students.

A third group started @ChennaiCares, sharing lists of relief centers and medical camps. It worked with municipal authorities, forwarded emergency requests and spotlighted the concerns of the neediest. There were several other similar efforts.

Do these initiatives offer a lesson in disaster management elsewhere?

“Personally, I think it boils down to streamlining the help and the resources offered,” says Murali, the student who helped with the spreadsheet. “If person A has something, and person B needs it, you do need a person C to just connect both ends. It’s never an issue of lack of help, it’s just organizing it effectively.”

G. K. Bhat, an urban planning expert in Surat, says social media is an effective intermediary for connecting people to government agencies, NGOs and volunteer groups. But Bhat, who works with the consultancy TARU Leading Edge, says it works better if there is a strategy in place before disaster strikes.

[See: What Surat learned from a preventable flood]

Surat, a city in western India, provides a good example. Its municipality has a smartphone app through which anyone can track the inflow and outflow of water at the nearby Ukai reservoir. The app informs citizens of imminent flood danger. It was developed after a serious flood in 2006, first as an SMS alert and then as an app.

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Patralekha Chatterjee is  a Delhi-based, award-winning journalist and columnist. She has written extensively on Asian cities. Full bio

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