On August 10, 2018, severe flooding affected the Indian state of Kerala due to unusually high rainfall during the monsoon season. It was the worst flooding in Kerala in nearly a century. Over 380 people died, while at least 700,000 people were evacuated. All 14 districts of the state were placed on high alert. According to the Kerala government, one-sixth of the total population of the state had been directly affected by the floods and related incidents. The Union government had declared it a Level 3 Calamity or 'Calamity of a severe nature’.
Thirty-five out of the 42 dams within the state were opened for the first time in history. All five overflow gates of the Idukki Dam were opened at the same time for the first time in 26 years. Heavy rains in Wayanad and Idukki caused severe landslides and left the hilly districts isolated.
Kerala’s official rescue website
One thousand and five hundred techies came together to manage Kerala's official rescue website for free. keralarescue.in - the state government’s official rescue website - was set up in the aftermath of the devastating floods that battered the state. The backbone behind the creation of this website are about 1,500 volunteer IT professionals from around the world — even those working in Microsoft, IBM, Google and Facebook— who joined the team to improve the application. Vignesh Hari, an engineering student and a volunteer of the worldwide team of professionals, took nearly 96 manhours to develop the website on GitHub, which is a crowdsourcing software development platform.
The data shared by keralarescue.in was already doing the rounds in social media groups, which were all acting like miniature helpline groups. But doing a quick check for valid contacts of rescuers and other resources remained an issue for volunteer groups.
Around 69 volunteer software developers contributed to the master (main) design of keralarescue.in. However, there were hundreds of other developers who contributed to the fringe elements of the website.
The main professional, Vignesh is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) - the world’s largest technical professional society. The Kerala chapter of IEEE is one of the main driving forces behind the website.
The main intention behind the website is to connect people, to get requests from various locations, get a list of volunteers and to supply the requirements. The requirements keep changing continuously. The team has points of contact in every district.
The website was made available in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu besides many international languages.
The website has received over 10mn requests for aid and rescue, resulting in the developers working in shifts. The US-based developers took over at night while core developers in the state of Kerala, Chennai and Bengaluru operated during morning hours.
On the website, one can request help and get information on relief camps, district collection centres, latest announcements, get access to maps, as well as contribute.
Numerous call centres working relentlessly to provide rescue and relief assistance groups were set up across the country, especially in engineering colleges like IISc Bengaluru, IIT Guwahati and IIT Hyderabad.
When the floods wreaked havoc, most of the helpline numbers were always busy. So a cloud telephony-based solution, which enables a single phone number to handle high concurrent call traffic, was introduced by a group of engineers from Thiruvananthapuram and Bengaluru. Now, the state health department is using this number as a toll free health helpline.
How students and techies used technology to mitigate the crisis during the floods
On August 10, IEEE cancelled its All Kerala Science Congress, owing to heavy rains in the state. The organisers of the event – mostly students from various engineering colleges in the state – were naturally disappointed. Though Kerala was yet to face a deluge then, they started discussing how to help people in the flooded places. Muralidharan M, head of the Kerala state e-governance mission and IEEE subcommittee co-chair, asked them if they could develop an easy-to-use application for volunteers to register and supply of food and medicine.
On August 11, a team started working on it and within 14 hours they developed an open-source application, keralarescue.in. The flood situation was getting worse. So, within a few days the website started accepting rescue and relief requests, and collecting GPS data to locate those who were stranded. The state government and the Kerala IT mission soon came forward to collaborate with the site, and keralarescue.in started sharing information with district control rooms and other volunteer groups.
Kallushappu (toddy shop), a WhatsApp group of techies, initiated the development of another web application, keralafloodrescue.com, to check for valid contacts of rescuers and other resources.
There have been thousands of dedicated underground volunteers using technology to help the flood victims. Though rains have abated, their efforts have not. They are still busy rebuilding God’s Own Country, byte by byte.
Using social media to help flood-hit Kerala
Indians from different parts of the country are using social media to help people stranded in the flood-hit state of Kerala.
Hundreds have taken to social media platforms to co-ordinate search, rescue and food distribution efforts and also to reach out to people who need help.
Almost all district collectors communicated to the youth through social media and requested for volunteers for the rescue and food distribution and thousands of volunteers were gathered in different locations as per the guidance of district administration. This was possible due to the creative thoughts of young IAS officers even while the state government was unaware of the efforts being put in place by them.
Google Person Finder, Facebook Crisis page went live
Google’s Person Finder tool to track missing people was rolled out for the Kerala floods. The Person Finder tool can be logged in from desktop or mobile phones to help find people as well as provide information about missing persons on the site.
Google’s Person Finder data is available to the public, so users can simply enter the name of the person they are searching. Google shows all available records matching that person’s name, and also address (where it is available).
People can create a new record as well. In case people want to give information about someone missing, they can enter the person’s given and family names. Users were given the following link: https://google.org/personfinder/2018-kerala-flooding. Here, they can either look for a missing person or give information about someone.
Users were also relying on SMS for Google Finder. In order to find a person, they can send an SMS to Person Finder by texting +91-9773300000. In order to search for someone, they can just text search followed by the name of the person to the Google Person Finder number.
Users can also text on the Google Finder number to let others know they are safe. They can send an SMS to Person Finder by texting on the same number as the one given above. Users just need to text ‘I am’, followed by their full name. This will be enough for Google to add your name to the list of people who are safe.
Our thoughts are with those in Kerala. Help track missing people with #personfinder: https://t.co/8EECLFpCqv #KeralaFloodspic.twitter.com/mo9VM3Uph4
Facebook crisis response page
In addition, Facebook also had its crisis response page for Kerala flooding live. Notably, Facebook has 270mn users in India out of 1.47bn users globally, which makes it one of the largest social media platforms in the country. The page has news content, videos, etc related to Kerala flooding, curated from public posts from various sources, including media sources across the world. Facebook has also activated its Safety Check feature that helps friends and family of the user know they are safe.
Google, Facebook, Truecaller and Qkopy pitch in with new features
At a time when information may be scarce and coordinated relief steps have to be in place, tech companies such as Google, Amazon and Truecaller are lending a hand.
According to data released by the World Economic Forum in January, more than 700,000 people died as a result of disasters between the years of 2005 and 2014, and 1.7bn people were impacted globally. China suffered the most disasters (286), followed by the US (212), Philippines (181) and India (167). That unfortunate trend continues. As human beings grapple for survival, all help is welcome.
Google also activated Kerala Flood Resources feature in Google Maps, with a consolidated pin-dropped list on Google Maps (https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=19pdXYBAk8RyaMjazX7mjJIJ9EqAyoRs5&shorturl=1&ll=10.131576801923254%2C76.09216694682618&z=7). This list includes direct guidance to locations for shelter, rescue, food and water, helplines, relief material collection, clean drinking water, ambulance, transportation, clothing, essentials, pet shelter and more. Each category has been given a separate icon for easy identification and is updated statewide.
Kozhikhode-based Qkopy is a social networking app released earlier this summer. Qkopy played a very critical role in getting information out to people stranded in the still flooded parts of Kerala, or attempting to know about the current status of flooding, waterlogging and traffic movements. You need to simply save the Kozhikode City Traffic Police phone number in your phone, open the Qkopy app to allow it to access your phone's contacts and the Qkopy app will send you instant updates as shared by the police.
These are one-way communication alerts for users, sharing information about the areas that are safe to visit and areas that should still be avoided, as well as traffic advisories. The updates are instant, and are even colour coded as green for everything is okay and red if it is a warning. The app is available for Android and iOS devices and is free to download and use.
Contribution by big businesses
Popular shopping website Amazon India also launched the Amazon Cares: Contribute to Kerala Flood Relief website. Amazon India partnered with three non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Habitat for Humanity, World Vision India and Goonj to help people donate what is genuinely required for relief operations. Each NGO has listed essential products from Amazon's product inventory itself, and you simply need to add those to the cart as you would during normal shopping and buy. Amazon and the NGOs coordinated to get the items delivered to Kerala centres at the earliest, and then in the hands of the rescue and relief teams who took them to those impacted by the devastating floods.
For instance, Habitat for Humanity sought contributions in rain-coats, towels, spoons, plastic floor mats, emergency lanterns and Dettol disinfectants. World Vision India, for instance, wanted contributions in eatables such as daal, tea, rechargeable torches and even plastic buckets. One of the biggest problems during disaster relief is that a lot of relief materials contributed from around the world sometimes includes items that aren't necessary, and it makes the process of relief distribution slow as the teams need to sift through what is needed and what can be sidelined for the time being.
Caller ID service for smartphones, called Truecaller, also linked up with the Kerala CM's Disaster Relief Fund and let you contribute money via the Truecaller Pay payments feature on the app itself, without having to rely on any third party services. You need to link the app in your phone with your bank account's UPI ID to make the payments.
Perhaps the most powerful, the most accessible tool and quickest tools in these times are the social media platforms. Facebook posts, Twitter updates and WhatsApp groups can be used to get information across quickly and to a large demographic. From Kerala, we saw numerous tweets from people who were stuck in homes and schools, calling out for help, by sharing their location and coordinates. Rescue teams who monitored particular keywords and hashtags at that time, were able to pin-point the location quickly. The same goes for Facebook too. With WhatsApp, it is more of the community, the people you may know or the people who may be in your locality, coming together to help, inform and support.
Malayalee techies raise ₹70mn via Facebook for flood Kerala floods victims
Arun Simon Nellamattom and Yuvajanavedhi, engineer of Chicago, coordinated the entire fundraising campaign via Facebook. The techies created a group - Kerala Flood Relief Activities from USA (National Level) - and started a campaign to raise funds for the flood victims in Kerala.
Techies on their toes
Thiruvananthapuram: Many volunteers involved in the rescue and relief work are employees of Technopark, who have been actively helping flood victims. The volunteers from B-hub have been actively participating in reaching the supplies to Adoor and Chengannur. Abhilash, a member said, “We were able to involve more volunteers and more companies in our effort.”
More than 55 trucks loaded with relief materials were sent to the relief camps. To help people get back to their normal life, a group of volunteers came forward to help with plumbing and electrical requirements in the flood-hit houses free of cost. A few of them have even developed an application to locate victims. The application - www.LifeHunterz.com - can be used to access mobile phones.
The interface lets the user locate or zoom into the flood-affected areas, and drop a pin with the details of the victims who are trapped at the location. GPS should be enabled to get greater accuracy. The details then collected are handed over to the team coordinating rescue operations.
“We thought of making an app to help with operations. It was made in a few hours,” said Hemant, one of the persons behind it.
“A team of top IT officials from Kerala are flexing their high level contacts in global IT companies to raise private donations for the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Funds.”
Also, the CMDRF website run by a public body - C-DIT – crashed several times. So top experts from IT majors who have their offices in Thiruvananthapuram — Nissan, UST Global and Oracle among others and startups— are worked closely with C-DIT to resolve performance issues of the website (www.donation.cmdrf.kerala.gov.in).
“On Sunday morning, a WhatsApp group was created (Relief Fund websites). By evening, a mirror website for CMDRF was created, which could be used as back-up during crashes,” said Robin Alex Panicker, a software engineer based in a startup co-working space called B-Hub in Thiruvananthapuram.
“Malayalees cannot control a natural calamity. But they surely can control technology.”
Techie initiates ‘Recycle Kerala’ to clear waste
Tonnes of relief material packed in carton boxes were sent to Kodagu and Kerala on an hourly basis ever since the floods ravaged these areas. As wrappers, paper, aluminium foils, plastic bags and bottles accumulated at the relief centres, a Bengaluru-based techie from Kerala, Roshan V K, came up with the idea of ‘Recycle Kerala’ to pick up the dry waste from the relief camps and put them back in the same truck while returning from the flood-hit areas.
Kerala techies come together to help in relief efforts
Over 1mn people were sheltered in 3,274 relief camps in Kerala. As relief efforts for the floods gathered pace, tracking of the aid inventory was becoming a big problem for the state and local administration. Techies in Kerala came together to develop an inventory tracking software to solve this problem.
Hundreds of IT workers from Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram joined hands under the aegis of Prathidhwani (a socio-cultural collective programme) to run a ‘Kerala Needs’ help desk. The website was put together for effective collaboration between various stakeholders involved in the relief work. The district administration adopted the tracking software designed by techies.
The call centre setup at the Technopark Club matched relief material with those having supply in that region.
Another group of techies ran a relief material collection centre. The work on the software began on Sunday afternoon, and night, these techies presented a demonstration of the software to the district administration.
More than 50 truck loads of relief material was sent from the collection centre run by Prathidhwani. The work on the software started after the District Collector got in touch with the developer's team, explaining the particular problem of inventory tracking. The team delivered the working software to the district administration within a short period of time.
Nishin, a member of the development team, spent some time at the collection centres, studied the workflow and quickly put together the application. The software was implemented at the relief-material collection centres. The software keeps all the records of all the inventory up-to-date. The company management and Technopark management supported in these efforts.
Some IT firms let employees on the bench join these initiatives.
Kerala flood victims were able to share their location with Google Maps plus codes.
Even when they are offline, Kerala flood victims can use their Android smartphones or tablets to generate and share the plus code of their exact location, which can pinpoint their whereabouts and make it easier for rescue workers to reach them, Google said on Saturday. Users can share their plus codes over a voice call or an SMS.
Plus codes work just like street addresses. When an address is not available, one can use a plus code to find or share a place on Google Maps. A plus code includes 6-7 letters and numbers, and a town or city. To find the plus code for a place on an Android phone or tablet, users need to open the Google Maps app and touch and hold a place to drop a pin on Google Maps. They then need to tap the address or description at the bottom, and scroll down to find the plus code. To search for a place using a plus code, all the rescuers or family members of the flood victims need to do is type the plus code in the search box of the Google Maps app.
Use Google's plus codes to help locate Kerala flood victims more easily
When Kerala was gradually being swallowed up by flood waters, emergency responders were having a harder time locating people awaiting rescue. Google believed it had a system that could make finding exact locations much easier.
The company suggested that people sharing the location of either someone in danger or a missing person found, should also share their ‘Plus Code’. It’s a simple ten or 11 digit code that pinpoints a very precise location, right down to within a few metres.
With plus codes, the entire world has been divided into sets of quadrants, that are each subdivided as well. With each of these quadrants assigned a region code, it makes narrowing down a particular spot easier, irrespective of roads and landmarks. An added bonus is that these plus codes can be generated even while offline, which can then type out and shared via phone call or SMS.
The plus code for your location was explained in different social media platforms. Simply open the Google Maps app on your phone and tap and hold to drop a pin at your location. That will pop up a little bar at the bottom showing the regular address. Tap on that to bring up the full panel. Near the bottom, denoted by a symbol with five dots in a star shape, will be your plus code.
After that, you can tap the plus code to copy it to your clipboard and share via another app, or you can type it in a message manually. To find the location denoted by a plus code, simply paste it into the Maps app search box.
It might help to attach information like this in Google’s Person Finder as well, to make things easier
This is a reflection of the outcome of the floods that occurred in our small Big Kerala.
By Ferose Habeebulla, Caledonian College of Engineering, Oman