Social Media Used in Disaster Recovery – the Mumbai Pattern

Much has been written on the Mumbaikar’s “Never say die” attitude, about how the city never sleeps and how it springs back into action almost instantaneously after even the worst calamities. As a Mumbaikar myself, I have experienced this first hand. However, in the later times, while I do not stay in Mumbai anymore, I have found that it is possible to help out even remotely, enabled by digital communication media. This article is mainly about that, and specific dos and donts for those who help and for those who need help.

Difficulties and Individual Heroism

I stayed in Mumbai when the heavy rainfall of 2005 happened and witnessed the plight of people who got stuck. A colleague could not get to his home in Kurla for 4 days – he walked back on the railway tracks when everything came to a standstill and stayed with his uncle at Mulund for 4 days in the same pair of clothes that he had. Instances such as these make an impact on the Mumbaikar’s mind.

Even if you have your close relatives staying in another suburb, the first person who could help you would always be your neighbor. Similarly, the Mumbai police is known for their efficiency and bravery, but they or the rest of the government machinery understandably takes some time to start making a difference — especially given the clogged roads and halted trains.

The first few hours after a calamity strikes are crucial. The real heroes, the helping Mumbaikars, instinctively jump to help the needy with whatever they have at their disposal, without waiting for any stimulus. Individuals offer food and shelter for anyone who needs it. Medics offer their services. A few voluntary organizations quickly get together and start reaching out to people to save lives.

Use of Social Media

While these altrustic activities happen on the ground, there are reflections of that on social media. During bomb blasts case it was twitter and during 29/08 rain it was whatsapp. Much before any news channel starts broadcasting it, one starts sensing that something is amiss when one starts getting tweets (I’ll use the same word even if these are whatsapp messages) about someone getting stranded. These tweets are forwarded/ shared and one would receive those if you are fairly connected with people there.

One can roughly sense 3 stages of these messages:

  1. The initial tweets are about the individual reports of disaster. They have a narrow view, regarding some problem with an individual, not enough to ascertain the strike of a disaster.
  2. Then it quickly emerges into a pattern, and more information becomes available, with people making available the video recordings.
  3. Then you will see tweets from people / groups / institutions offering food / shelter / medical help

One Can Help Remotely

The offers about the food / shelter need to reach the needy people. That’s where one can help remotely. One can run a private call center over phone / social media. The fact is that it is easier for you to help if you are away from the disaster-struck place (like I was not in Mumbai during 29/08 rains or bomb blasts), because you would have more stable internet and electricity. The people dealing with the situation may lose their internet / power at any instance, and they also have things on ground to deal with.

Your help could comprise of:

  1. Ascertaining the issue – You do not want to cry wolf every time you see a message about someone having a problem. Maybe it is one of the numerous things that happen daily. Wait till you see a large number of people getting affected and you start seeing a pattern emerging.
  2. Validating and forwarding the information – regarding the people offering help, I had called some people offering help to quickly check if they sound genuine, and then forwarded their contact information ahead.
  3. Informing government authorities and forwarding their information – Mumbai police and PMC had declared their helpline numbers, but it is always possible that it is missed out by those in distress, so it helps if you communicate those numbers ahead, because those are known to be authentic.
  4. Monitoring and Calling it off – Many times, the people who have offered help become your eyes and ears. Your quick help is needed only till the police /government machinery reaches the site. When they take charge, your help is usually no more needed. In case one asks, forward them to the government sites.

Dos and Donts

For the persons who get stuck:

  1. Do not panic and do not take unnecessary risks. It is natural to get overwhelmed by situation when it hits you, but if it is a disaster affecting many people, be certain that help will emerge. Hold on to your position and wait for it.
  2. Tune in to Social Media and Radio. Social media is where the help will become available quickest. These days almost everyone has mobile data, so switch it on. Connect with your friends / family about the exact situation you are in. Local radio channel also typically run a helpline and announce how to reach out to government for help.
  3. Validate the information you receive. Do not trust information blindly. Validate it yourself. Is the information coming from the right source? For example, if someone in the area is offering shelter, especially if it not a public place, then before going to that place at least call that person and make sure that you really want to go there.
  4. Use government helplines. Typically, within hours of a calamity, government would declare helpline numbers. Use those.

For the remote people on the social media:

  1. Understand the situation with empathy. The initial reports / videos shared will help you better understand the story. That will help you understand where one can help.
  2. Do not overdo it. You are merely providing assistance where needed. You are not running the show. Your help is needed only in the first few hours after a calamity strikes, before the government machinery is in place to handle it. Step back when that happens.
  3. Use social media responsibly. Do not forward just about anything and everything that you can lay your hands on. Keep in mind that there may always be opportunist elements who would try to take advantage of the situation and have in mind something other than altruism. Also, use social media to share hope. Refrain from spreading panic.
  4. Do not clog social media. The people struck by disaster will not get any value from your business promotions or forwarded jokes. Let them find helpful information quickly. Therefore, when you sense that a disaster has struck, even if you are not helping, refrain from clogging the social media.

 

There are some things that make the incidents unique to Mumbai. First is the sheer size and complexity. The second is the Mumbaikar’s spontaneity in helping the person next to him. However, from the perspective of helping out, Mumbai is not unique and the same dos and donts would apply elsewhere too.

Share this post if you find it useful. Comments are welcome.

[Featured image attribution: Heavy rains revisist Bombay…. by Hitesh Ashar licensed under CC BY 2.0]

Social Media Used in Disaster Recovery – the Mumbai Pattern

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