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Digital heroes

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on August 24, 2018

Disaster management apps come to the rescue during natural calamities by relaying information in real time pti   -  pti

In flood-ravaged Kerala, technology played a crucial role in directing rescue efforts to those in need of it, especially where other means failed

Susan Thomas, a Muscat resident who was in Kerala for a family wedding, panicked when she didn’t hear from her elderly father three days in a row. Her father lived with his four siblings in a bungalow built on the banks of Pampa river in Kozhencherry, and had recently undergone a bypass surgery. Thomas had met her father on the night of August 14 before leaving for the wedding. The next morning, her father called to say the overnight rains had flooded the area and the first floor of the riverside bungalow would soon be five feet under water. His siblings were all in their eighties, and in poor health. They remained cut off completely until August 18, when army boats rescued them. “It was a Facebook post and a Google pin that saved us. My post, written in desperation when all contact was down, got 198 shares, and a friend, who’s very close to [former Kerala chief minister] Oommen Chandy contacted him to apprise him of the situation,” Thomas said.

A Google pin refers to the location marker service offered by the search engine on Google Maps, a tool that is useful in disaster management. Google’s person finder feature has two signs — one for a missing person, and another for any available information about the person. In Kerala, many people used it to find their way to food supplies during the flood. Thomas explained, “Since the army platoons deployed in the rescue efforts came from other states, the Google pins proved handy for them, especially when local fishermen were not at hand to guide them.”

Google Maps, too, allowed users to get a plus code for their exact location — namely, coordinates that can be used to pinpoint even areas away from roads.

The floods that devastated Kerala last week saw many superheroes rise to the occasion, saving innumerable lives — fishermen, youth, the civic administration and the defence services, among others. Proving equal to the task, technology played a crucial role in directing rescue efforts to those in need of it, especially where many other means failed.

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Not just in Kerala, around the world, disaster management apps have increasingly come to the rescue during natural calamities by relaying information in real time, and informing the locals about places where they can take refuge in. The catastrophic earthquake in Nepal in 2015 gave rise to the Vukampa app, which relayed area-wise information on seismic activity, its location and magnitude. Zello, the top downloaded app during the 2017 Hurricane Irma in the US, turned users’ phones into a walkie-talkie to request for, or provide assistance.

Keralarescue.in, a site created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and Kerala’s IT cell, enabled real-time coordination of rescue missions during the flood. It became so popular over the week that the free version of the Slack software it uses proved unable to take the load. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, when contacted by volunteers, upgraded the users to the software’s paid version in record time, according to a news report. Over 10 million requests on the site were handled by 1,585 voluntary coders during the deluge, the report added.

Even existing websites stretched themselves to provide succour. When the site for the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund kept crashing due to the unprecedented inflow from around the world, IT companies Oracle, UST Global and others voluntarily helped the site’s managing company, C-DIT, to resolve the issue. A mirror site was created to share the load.

Qkopy, a homegrown app from Kozhikode, surfaced during the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala earlier this year, listing the potential risk areas to help contain the spread of the disease. It came to life again during the flash floods, sharing information on the affected areas and the rescue efforts.

Among other digital rescue acts were e-commerce portals such as Amazon India, which tied up with three non-profits — Humans for Humanity, World Vision India and Goonj — to allow users to donate essentials such as food and other perishable items, chappals, clothing and cooking utensils. Big Basket tied up with Goonj for food donations.

App to date
  • Made precisely to work in the face of damaged infrastructure and jammed phone networks, the Firechat smartphone app works through offline messaging. As its coverage is limited to a 200m range, it is a good way to spread information locally. In the absence of internet connectivity, a crowdsourced network is built through phones that have the app; alerts are pushed from one phone to another. With seven million downloads so far, the app is used in the Philippines and Polynesia for real-time information on typhoons.

Caller ID service Truecaller and e-wallet Paytm enabled direct payments to the CM’s Disaster Relief Fund. Facebook and Google Person Finder allowed people to mark themselves safe during the flooding.

Many stranded people used WhatsApp to connect to volunteer groups, Navy personnel and local civic administration groups, as their numbers were widely publicised. Twitter crowdsourced the names of those who wanted evacuation for themselves, or their next of kin. Medical, food and other requirements were also mentioned on the list, which helped in directing the rescue efforts.

“Acts of god” they may be, but when natural disasters strike, technology is increasingly proving a worthy ally.

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Published on August 24, 2018
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