Guest Post: Online activism for #ChennaiRainsHelp on Twitter

Friday, 18 December 2015

As Chennai grappled with one of the worst floods that have last for several excruciating weeks, residents took to Twitter to to provide information that can be useful in the time of crisis. They shared helpline numbers, train schedules, forecast updates, area updates, crisis relief efforts and safety tips using #ChennaiRainsHelp, #ChennaiRescue, and #ChennaiVolunteer. Residents in Chennai Tweeted with these three hashtags to help in organised rescue operations, aid government bodies, amplify crucial messages to citizens, warn citizens in key affected areas, and provide a sense of real-time support to citizens caught in the floods.

Twitter saw conversation volume of 1.4 million Tweets from Dec 1st to 4th as users, volunteers from around the country, celebrities, and corporates came together to organise relief efforts. Click on the interactive chart below to see the spotlighted Tweets:

Guest Post: Online activism for #ChennaiRainsHelp on Twitter

Founders of two key volunteer groups, @Chennairainsorg and @ChennaiCares that were set-up in real time with the help of crowd-sourced aid and information, talk about how online activism flourished on Twitter and helped save those in need on the ground:

It all started when I (@sowmyarao_) logged on to Twitter on December 1, 2015 to ask for information about rains in suburban Chennai. My aunt and uncle lived there, and they complained that water was entering their house. They were wondering if they should stay or evacuate to a friend’s apartment - and I offered to go online and check. Twitter responded urgently with “Get them to higher ground!”. I relayed the message, and stuck around online, feeling helpless, knowing that the areas beyond where they lived, were probably facing the same plight. They didn’t have enough information to know where they could find shelter, and who was offering it.

At @atlasdanced’s suggestion (someone I had never spoken to before), I set up a simple spreadsheet. The thinking was simple: To crowdsource details about those who could offer shelter, and pass that on to those who were Tweeting about rising waters. Little did I know then, that the hastily-put together spreadsheet would bloom into a multi-faceted, volunteer driven, highly energetic online movement to help Chennai that would be used by police officers, government officials.

It was imperative to get onto a online platform as we were all facing limitations of physical mobility, and that’s how @ChennaiCares and @ChennaiRainsOrg were created. 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 the incoming Tweets. A crowdsourced spreadsheet had been created a with information about shelter and rescue was quickly adopted and being circulated for recording data.

Celebrities adopted hashtags for their own relief efforts and provided help by amplifying our voices and those of the needy. Next morning we launched the Chennai Rains Resource Center, a website with forms for entering in requests for rescue, aid, and volunteering, and a view for checking existing data.

The #ChennaiRains relief efforts coordinated and run by Twitter users was one of the biggest natural disasters in recent in times that went viral. In less than 7 days, it has taught many of us the importance of efficient coordination as well as veracity and authenticity of data. A code of ethics was informally observed universally, where people decided to be responsible and helpful on their own. Real-time data and Twitter accounts brought together countless individuals who strove to help as much as possible. And all of this was put together by a handful of Twitter users in under 12 hours and used by over 100,000 people, and over hundreds of volunteers working from around the world. Perhaps most impressive was the high awareness that users had when it came to having authentic data on the website and on Twitter.

The young and savvy volunteers at @ChennaiCares came up with a pretty simple algorithm where in people wanting to help would get the database of those seeking help and they would geographically match the seeker and provider. Driving hashtag activism on Twitter is what helped in minimising human intervention by transcending topographical limitations. With almost 2,000 requests for rescue a day, it was impossible to handle the load, especially with a small team. However, this is 2015, and activism of the post-modern kind is “Hashtag Activism”.

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.

The story of @ChennaiRainsOrg and @ChennaiCares is one of hope, and of humanity. Our story is one that was scripted not by a controlled, centralised team, but organically by strangers, connected by Twitter, brought together by hashtags, and powered by adrenalin, anguish and the common desire to help a city that means so much to all of us.