Tag Archives: citizens

How Civil Disobedience Improves Crowdsourced Disaster Response (and Vice Versa)

Update: The most recent example of the link between disobedience and disaster response is Occupy #Sandy. As the New York Times and ABC News have noted,  “the movement’s connections and ‘altruistic drive’ has led to them being some-what more effective in the northwestern Hurricane Sandy relief movement than ‘larger, more established charity groups.’”As noted here, “the coordinators of the Occupy Sandy relief effort have been working in conjunction with supply distributors, such as the Red Cross and FEMA, while relying on the National Guard for security.” Many describe the movement’s role in response to Sandy as instrumental. The Occupy movement also worked with New York City’s office and other parts of the government. Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Occupy for their invaluable efforts: “Thank you for everything you’ve done. You guys are great [...]. You really are making a difference.” The Occupy Sandy documentary below is well worth watching. I also recommend reading this blog post.

When Philippine President Joseph Estrada was forced from office following widespread protests in 2001, he complained bitterly that “the popular uprising against him was a coup de text.” Indeed, the mass protests had been primarily organized via SMS. Fast forward to 2012 and the massive floods that re-cently paralyzed the country’s capital. Using mobile phones and social media, ordinary Filipinos crowdsourced the disaster response efforts on their own without any help from the government.

In 2010, hundreds of forest fires ravaged Russia. Within days, volunteers based in Moscow launched their own crowdsourced disaster relief effort, which was seen by many as both more effective and visible than the Kremlin’s response. These volunteers even won high profile awards in recognition of their efforts (picture below). Some were also involved in the crowdsourced response to the recent Krymsk floods. Like their Egyptian counterparts, many Russians are par-ticularly adept at using social media and mobile technologies given the years of experience they have in digital activism and civil resistance.

At the height of last year’s Egyptian revolution, a female activist in Cairo stated the following: “We use Facebook to schedule our protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world.” Several weeks later, Egyptian activists used social networking platforms to organize & coordinate their own humanitarian convoys to Tripoli to provide relief to Libyan civilians affected by the fighting.

The same is true of Iranians, as witnessed during the Green Revolution in 2009. Should anyone be surprised that young, digitally savvy Iranians took the lead in using social media and mobile technologies to crowdsource relief efforts in response to the recent earthquakes in the country’s northern region? Given their distrust of the Iranian regime, should anyone be surprised that they opted to deliver the aid directly to the disaster-affected communities themselves?

Whether they are political activists on one day and volunteer humanitarians on another, the individuals behind the efforts described above use the same tools to mobilize and coordinate. And they build social capital in the process—strong and weak ties—regardless of whether they are responding to repressive policies or “natural’ disasters. Social capital facilitates collective action, which is key to political movements and humanitarian response—both on and offline. While some individuals are more politically inclined, others are more drawn to helping those in need during a disaster. Either way, these individuals are already part of overlapping social networks.

In fact, some activists may actually consider their involvement in volunteer-based humanitarian response efforts as an indirect form of nonviolent protest and civil resistance. According to The New York Times, volunteers who responded to Iran’s deadly double earthquake were “a group of young Iranians—a mix of hipsters, off-road motor club members and children of affluent families [...]“. They “felt like rebels with a cause [...], energized by anger over widespread accusations that Iran’s official relief organizations were not adequately helping survivors [...].” Interestingly, Iran’s Supreme Leader actually endorsed this type of private, independent delivery of aid that Iranian volunteers had undertaken. He may want to think that over.

The faster and more ably citizen volunteers can respond to “natural” disasters, the more backlash there may be against governments who are not seen to respond adequately to these disasters. Their legitimacy and capacity to govern may come into question by more sectors of the population. Both Beijing and Iran have already been heavily criticized for their perceived failure in responding to the recent floods and earthquakes. More importantly, perhaps, these crowd-sourced humanitarian efforts may serve to boost the confidence of activists. As one Iranian activist noted, “By organizing our own aid convoy, we showed that we can manage ourselves [...]. We don’t need others to tell us what to do.”

In neighboring Pakistan, the government failed catastrophically in its response to the devastating cyclone that struck East Pakistan in 1970. To this day, Cyclone Bhola remains the most deadly cyclone on record, killing some 500,000 people. A week after the hazard struck, the Pakistani President acknowledged that his government had made “mistakes in its handling of the relief efforts due to a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the disaster.” The lack of timely and coordinated government response resulted in massive protests agains the state, which served as an important trigger for the war of independence that led to the creation of Bangladesh. (Just imagine, SMS wasn’t even around then).

Given a confluence of grievances, “natural” disasters may potentially provide a momentary window of opportunity to catalyze regime change. This is perhaps more likely when those citizens responding to a disaster also happen to be savvy digital activists (and vice versa).

Crowdsourcing Disaster Response in Iran: How Volunteers Bypassed the State

The double earthquakes that recently struck Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province killed over 300 people and left thousands more homeless. Iranians are par-ticularly adept at using Facebook and other social media platforms. So I was hardly surprised to learn that Iranian journalists launched a Facebook group to collect and and share reliable information related to the earthquake’s impact. Some of these journalists also visited the disaster-struck region to document the deva-station and aid in the relief efforts.

Existing Facebook groups were also used to bring help to those in need. One such group, called Female Equals Male, encouraged followers to donate blood at centers across the country. An Iranian who works at one of these centers was taken aback by the response: “… it was the first time that I have ever seen people being so eager to donate blood. It has always been us, pushing, advertising and asking people to do so.” Female Equals Male already had over 140,000 “likes” before the earthquake.

Like their Egyptian counterparts who crowdsourced volunteer convoys into Libya last year, young Iranians also organized caravans to bring relief to victims of the earthquake in the north of the country. They spontaneously organized a charity effort using SMS, Facebook and phone calls to collect money and relief supplies. “But instead of handing over their collection to the Iranian Red Crescent Society —which is close to the government—as the authorities had asked in the state media, these youths were determined to transport it themselves to the most remote hill villages ravaged by the earthquakes […].” And so they did.

There seem to be more and more examples like this one occurring–ordinary citizens and volunteers taking (disaster response) matters into their own hands:

Of course, this phenomenon is hardly new. First responders, by definition, are the disaster affected population themselves. What is new is that these people-centered crowdsourced efforts are increasingly public and easier to coordinate thanks to social networking platforms and mobile technologies. “In Iran, where the state is involved in all layers of society, it is exceptional for a group of young people to organize a public effort of disaster relief” (NYTimes). As I have hinted in previous blog posts, this ability to mobilize, organize and coordinate can have important political ramifications.

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.