September 21, 2018
By Sebin Sabu and Nora Elizabeth Joby
The south Indian state of Kerala used a new model of rescue and rehabilitation during its worst flood of the century.
Kerala, a green state located in the Southwest coast of India is rich with 44 rivers within an area of 38,852 km2 along with a high population density of 860/km2. The heavy monsoon rainfall raised water levels in the 44 dams which were simultaneously opened, causing the worst flood of the century in the coastal state of Kerala in August 2018. 483 people were killed and the total loss of the state was estimated to be 282.2 million US dollars. The National Disaster Response Force along with the Indian Army and Indian Navy launched one of their largest rescue missions evacuating over 10,000 people. The response to the incident was lauded as a unique self-help mission due to the way in which the survivors and victims worked together in the relief and rehabilitation process. The fishermen in the coastal state of Kerala with their fishing boats played an important role and the helped rescue mission by shifting a large number of people to safer areas.
The Kerala floods demonstrated the role of Information Technology (IT) and social media (backed by public volunteering) in developing a self-evolving data crowdsourced platform that greatly helped rescue and rehabilitation. Crowdsourcing is the method of obtaining information or input into a task by making use of the services of a large number of people or devices, either paid or unpaid, typically via the Internet. Kerala, being one of the states with high digital literacy in India, has a large number of smartphone users.
Using crowdsourcing as a tool
The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Kerala Section has members from around 79 Engineering Colleges within Kerala. The IEEE with the support of the state run Kerala IT Mission, developed a portal keralarescue.in to collect help across the state. The Chief Minister of Kerala released it as the official online portal for the state’s rescue mission. Volunteers, majorly consisting of NGO (Non Governmental Organisation) activists and the energetic youth of Kerala, made phone calls to verify the legitimacy of inflowing requests and escalated the issue regional wise to the authorities.
About 2000 people were working day and night to improve and maintain the rescue portal. Engineers around the world worked from different time zones to ensure development and maintenance round the clock. Many IT companies dedicated their development teams. As the rescue operations progressed, new features that could help the operation were added, and coordination was done using the popular cloud based collaboration platform Slack. A total of 54,933 people registered themselves as volunteers in the website who helped in the rescue work. A total of 1,363,704 people visited the website and 45,587 requests were posted through the portal.
One of the main challenges faced in the initial days of rescue was the non availability of helpline numbers. Under such conditions people started posting whatsapp messages and live videos in facebook asking for help. Popular and active facebook pages with regional influence used their platform for posting help requests. Large and small groups were formed both inside and outside India to collect messages, and to spread these messages after verifying through phone calls, assigning priority by considering the number and ages of people trapped, and to prepare proper SOS messages with geo-tags to pass on to the rescue teams through the volunteers in the district level administration. Rescue requests were updated continuously. Volunteers were handling an average of 100 calls per day on identifying and verifying requests.
As the flood levels started rising, the state also faced critical issues in managing the relief camps, since the focus of the hour had been on rescuing maximum people. Volunteering groups took up the initiative and gave support to government officials by deploying a network using Whatsapp groups where the requirements of relief camps were mapped with people who were ready to provide the supplies. Massive supplies and relief materials were brought in by the public at different hubs located at the drier regions which were less affected from the floods. These hubs acted as central collection points from which materials were redirected to camps as per demand. Almost 500 truck loads of such relief materials collected from the public were supplied from the state capital Trivandrum, and more supplies came in from the neighbouring states and cities by road, rail and air. The efficient communication between the collection points and public through social media made sure that the public brought only those materials which were required in the camps.
Administrators, celebrities and public figures also appealed for public support in different forms through the social media. The response of the public on the ground level was overwhelming. Almost all sections of people including truck drivers, grocers and textile store owners helped in the relief activities.
The telecom operators made efforts to keep the networks intact that helped the relief works immensely. Many operators announced free calls and data packs over their networks during the floods to avoid any hindrance to the rescue operations.
About the authors
Recent graduate of Electrical and Electronics Engineering from TKM College of Engineering. He is a Berkner Fellow of American Geophysical Union.
Nora Elizabeth Joby
Recent graduate of Electronics and Communication Engineering from National Institute of Technology, Calicut. She is a Berkner Fellow of American Geophysical Union.