Crowdsourcing a Crisis Map of the Beijing Floods: Volunteers vs Government

Flash floods in Beijing have killed over 70 people and forced the evacuation of more than 50,000 after destroying over 8,000 homes and causing $1.6 billion in damages. In total, some 1.5 million people have been affected by the floods after Beijing recorded the heaviest rainfall the city has seen in more than 60 years.

The heavy rains began on July 21. Within hours, users of the Guokr.com social network launched a campaign to create a live crisis map of the flood’s impact using Google Maps. According to TechPresident, “the result was not only more accurate than the government output—it was available almost a day earlier. According to People’s Daily Online, these crowd-sourced maps were widely circulated on Weibo [China's version of Twitter] the Monday and Tuesday after the flooding.” The crowdsourced, citizen-generated flood map of Beijing is available here and looks like this:

One advantage of working with Google is that the crisis map can also be viewed via Google Earth. That said, the government does block a number of Google services in China, which puts the regime at a handicap during disasters.

This is an excellent example of crowdsourced crisis mapping. My one recommen-dation to Chinese volunteers would be to crowdsource solutions in addition to problems. In other words, map offers of help and turn the crisis map into a local self-help map, i.e., a Match.com for citizen-based humanitarian response. In short, use the map as a platform for self-organization and crowdsource response by matching calls for help with corresponding offers of help. I would also recommend they create their own Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) for crisis mapping to build social capital and repeat these efforts in future disasters.

Several days after Chinese volunteers first launched their crisis map, the Beijing Water Authority released its own map, which looks like a classic example of James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State.” The map is difficult to read and it is unclear whether the map is even a dynamic or interactive, or live for that matter. It appears static and cryptic. One wonders whether these adjectives also describe the government’s response.

Meanwhile, there is growing anger over the state’s botched response to the floods. According to People’s Daily, “Chinese netizens have criticised the munici-pal authority for failing to update the city’s run-down drainage system or to pre-warn residents about the impending disaster.” In other cities, Guangdong Mobile (the local division of China Mobile) sent out 30 million SMS about the storm in cooperation with the provincial government. “Mobile users in Shenzhen, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, and Yunfu received reminders to be careful from the telecom company because those five cities were forecast to be most affected by the storm.”

All disasters are political. They test the government’s capacity. The latter’s inability to respond swiftly and effectively has repercussions on citizens’ perception of governance and statehood. The more digital volunteers engage in crisis mapping, the more they highlight the local capacity and agency of ordinary citizens to create shared awareness and help themselves—with or without the state. In doing so, volunteers build social capital, which facilitates future collective action both on and offline. If government officials are not worried about their own failures in disaster management, they should be. This failure will continue to have political consequences, in China and elsewhere.

12 responses to “Crowdsourcing a Crisis Map of the Beijing Floods: Volunteers vs Government

  1. Small clarification – “weibo” is a generic term that means “microblog.” There are three significant weibos in China, operated by Sina, Tencent and Sohu. Sina’s is the largest, by far, and owns the domain “weibo.com,” so it tends to stand apart. There are several others, but I don’t think they are very big, although I hear that Netease may be.

  2. Pingback: A hard rain’s a-gonna fall – people power the real story in Beijing | Probe International

  3. In addition to Patrick’s salient recommendations, I think it is important to point out that this information can be a gold mine for response by the authorities. Granted, in China this may be a reach, but moving this data into operational intelligence for rescuers and responders will leverage it even further.

  4. Another interesting part of this story is the fact that amidst a bumbling official response, the cooperation of gov’t and telco was technically capable “without difficulty”, it was merely a matter of awareness. Having a map can be very useful, but the decision to send a “be careful” vs “get to high ground” text makes all the difference in the world. It seems that, again, awareness is everything and most governments are not set up to expect an emergency manager’s alert flow to go out for ‘free’. But they should, and we can be part of that push. What mechanism would enable an ‘I can help’ map better than SMS ? I honestly think it is beyond time for a global initiative for EMSMS policies and procedures to make interactive crisis management the norm.

  5. Jeffrey Villaveces

    As far as the risk of false alarms, that discussion will always remind me of the false alarm that a huge dam here in Colombia had broken on 3 December 2011. The authorities retransmitted a single alert and the entire city of Villavicencio entered into panic: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=petDCif5Klk&NR=1 and for humor (the reason I remember this) see this regaetton video about what happened. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEIeKjIxcf0 So on a more serious note I guess you could get a lot of false alarms, but maybe having crowd sourcing in effect would create enough transparence so as to allow people to double check and not go running into the street in panic.

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