According to the United Nations, India is the third worst-affected country by natural disasters since 1995. In 2013, British risk analysis firm Maplecroft, ranked India fifth most vulnerable to natural disasters after Bangladesh, the Philippines, Dominican Republic and Myanmar.
The needs of those affected by a natural disaster are multiple—from medicines, to clothes, to shelter and even monetary aid. And today, thanks to social media and the Internet, it is possible to at least salvage and stem the losses and devastation.
We have seen this effectively put to use in Puerto Rico when you look at how effectively Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, an open-source mapping platform was utilised in the aftermath of category 4 storm, Hurricane Maria, to provide access to digital maps of buildings and roads to aid organisations in Puerto Rico. Or (MIT)’s Urban Risk Lab—a crowd-sourced flood reporting platform that was used in the recent Chennai floods to share critical information in real-time between residents via an automated chatbot.
Whether it’s letting friends and family know that one is safe or sharing photos, articles or videos from crisis zones or mobilising community support and donations, social media can and plays a big role in the aftermath of a crisis. Facebook Safety Check, Donations and Community Help are just some of the ways people can help each other during times of crises.
We are also using aggregated, de-identified Facebook data to help oganisations address the critical gap in information they often face when responding to natural disasters. The creation of these disaster maps is the product of close work with UNICEF, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the World Food Programme, and other organisations. And is now available to India’s Disaster Management Authority and SEEDS (an NGO focused on disaster relief) in India.
Of 1.3 billion Indians, 450 million are internet users, 432 million are mobile data users—what can be harnessed are the people of India to form a volunteer base. As many as 730 million Indian mobile internet users are predicted by 2020. A network of volunteers providing real-time, first-hand information on disasters in their local communities is possible and being worked towards. We saw this in action during the recent Mumbai floods, where volunteers took to social media to provide and update data sheets of helpline numbers, number of people stranded, what they needed and how many were rescued. What is required is for volunteers to be mobilised, trained and connected through existing networks of local and credible civil society organisations along with willing individuals from public agencies.
There is a critical gap in data which government organisations face when responding to crisis situations. That is where online communities can step in. When there is a crisis, people often use Facebook to let their friends and families know they are safe, learn and share more about what’s happening, and help communities recover. In an increasingly tech-centric and digital world, with billions connected online, it is necessary to use our global community and the technology at hand to help keep people safe.
The writer is public policy director, Facebook -India, South and Central Asia