Tag Archives: Government

How Crowdsourced Disaster Response in China Threatens the Government

In 2010, Russian volunteers used social media and a live crisis map to crowdsource their own disaster relief efforts as massive forest fires ravaged the country. These efforts were seen by many as both more effective and visible than the government’s response. In 2011, Egyptian volunteers used social media to crowdsource their own humanitarian convoy to provide relief to Libyans affected by the fighting. In 2012, Iranians used social media to crowdsource and coordinate grassroots disaster relief operations following a series of earthquakes in the north of the country. Just weeks earlier, volunteers in Beijing crowd-sourced a crisis map of the massive flooding in the city. That map was immediately available and far more useful than the government’s crisis map. In early 2013, a magnitude 7  earthquake struck Southwest China, killing close to 200 and injuring more than 13,000. The response, which was also crowdsourced by volunteers using social media and mobile phones, actually posed a threat to the Chinese Government.


“Wang Xiaochang sprang into action minutes after a deadly earthquake jolted this lush region of Sichuan Province [...]. Logging on to China’s most popular social media sites, he posted requests for people to join him in aiding the survivors. By that evening, he had fielded 480 calls” (1). While the government had declared the narrow mountain roads to the disaster-affected area blocked to unauthorized rescue vehicles, Wang and hitchhiked his way through with more than a dozen other volunteers. “Their ability to coordinate — and, in some instances, outsmart a government intent on keeping them away — were enhanced by Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like microblog that did not exist in 2008 but now has more than 500 million users” (2). And so, “While the military cleared roads and repaired electrical lines, the volunteers carried food, water and tents to ruined villages and comforted survivors of the temblor [...]” (3). Said Wang: “The government is in charge of the big picture stuff, but we’re doing the work they can’t do” (4).

In response to this same earthquake, another volunteer, Li Chengpeng, “turned to his seven million Weibo followers and quickly organized a team of volunteers. They traveled to the disaster zone on motorcycles, by pedicab and on foot so as not to clog roads, soliciting donations via microblog along the way. What he found was a government-directed relief effort sometimes hampered by bureaucracy and geographic isolation. Two days after the quake, Mr. Li’s team delivered 498 tents, 1,250 blankets and 100 tarps — all donated — to Wuxing, where government supplies had yet to arrive. The next day, they hiked to four other villages, handing out water, cooking oil and tents. Although he acknowledges the government’s importance during such disasters, Mr. Li contends that grass-roots activism is just as vital. ‘You can’t ask an NGO to blow up half a mountain to clear roads and you can’t ask an army platoon to ask a middle-aged woman whether she needs sanitary napkins, he wrote in a recent post” (5).


As I’ve blogged in the past (here and here, for example), using social media to crowdsourced grassroots disaster response efforts serves to create social capital and strengthen collective action. This explains why the Chinese government (and others) faced a “groundswell of social activism” that it feared could “turn into government opposition” following the earthquake (6). So the Communist Party tried to turn the disaster into a “rallying cry for political solidarity. ‘The more difficult the circumstance, the more we should unite under the banner of the party,’ the state-run newspaper People’s Daily declared [...], praising the leadership’s response to the earthquake” (7).

This did not quell the rise in online activism, however, which has “forced the government to adapt. Recently, People’s Daily announced that three volunteers had been picked to supervise the Red Cross spending in the earthquake zone and to publish their findings on Weibo. Yet on the ground, the government is hewing to the old playbook. According to local residents, red propaganda banners began appearing on highway overpasses and on town fences even before water and food arrived. ‘Disasters have no heart, but people do,’ some read. Others proclaimed: ‘Learn from the heroes who came here to help the ones struck by disaster’ (8). Meanwhile, the Central Propaganda Department issued a directive to Chinese newspapers and websites “forbidding them to carry negative news, analysis or commentary about the earthquake” (9). Nevertheless, “Analysts say the legions of volunteers and aid workers that descended on Sichuan threatened the government’s carefully constructed narrative about the earthquake. Indeed, some Chinese suspect such fears were at least partly behind official efforts to discourage altruistic citizens from coming to the region” (10).

Aided by social media and mobile phones, grassroots disaster response efforts present a new and more poignant “Dictator’s Dilemma” for repressive regimes. The original Dictator’s Dilemma refers to an authoritarian government’s competing interest in using information communication technology by expanding access to said technology while seeking to control the democratizing influences of this technology. In contrast, the “Dictator’s Disaster Lemma” refers to a repressive regime confronted with effectively networked humanitarian response at the grassroots level, which improves collective action and activism in political contexts as well. But said regime cannot prevent people from helping each other during natural disasters as this could backfire against the regime.


See also:

 •  How Civil Disobedience Improves Crowdsourced Disaster Response [Link]

To Tweet or Not To Tweet During a Disaster?

Yes, only a small percentage of tweets generated during a disaster are directly relevant and informative for disaster response. No, this doesn’t mean we should dismiss Twitter as a source for timely, disaster-related information. Why? Because our efforts ought to focus on how that small percentage of informative tweets can be increased. What incentives or policies can be put in place? The following tweets by the Filipino government may shed some light.

Gov Twitter Pablo

The above tweet was posted three days before Typhoon Bopha (designated Pablo locally) made landfall in the Philippines. In the tweet below, the government directly and publicly encourages Filipinos to use the #PabloPH hashtag and to follow the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical & Astronomical Services Admin-istration (PAGASA) twitter feed, @dost_pagasa, which has over 400,000 follow-ers and also links to this official Facebook page.

Gov Twitter

The government’s official Twitter handle (@govph) is also retweeting tweets posted by The Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Plan-ning Office (@PCDCSO). This office is the “chief message-crafting body of the Office of the President.” In one such retweet (below), the office encourages those on Twitter to use different hashtags for different purposes (relief vs rescue). This mimics the use of official emergency numbers for different needs, e.g., police, fire, Ambulance, etc.

Twitter Pablo Gov

Given this kind of enlightened disaster response leadership, one would certainly expect that the quality of tweets received will be higher than without government endorsement. My team and I at QCRI are planning to analyze these tweets to de-termine whether or not this is the case. In the meantime, I expect we’ll see more examples of self-organized disaster response efforts using these hashtags, as per the earlier floods in August, which I blogged about here: Crowdsourcing Crisis Response following the Philippine Floods. This tech-savvy self-organization dynamic is important since the government itself may be unable to follow up on every tweeted request.

Could Social Media Have Prevented the Largest Mass Poisoning of a Population in History?

I just finished reading a phenomenal book. Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, was co-authored by my good friend Andrew Zolli of PopTech fame and his won-derful colleague Ann Marie Healey. I could easily write several dozen blog posts on this brilliant book. Consider this the first of possibly many more posts to follow. Some will summarize and highlight insights that really resonated with me while others like the one below will use the book as a spring board to explore related questions and themes.

In one of the many interesting case studies that Andrew and Ann discuss in their book, the following one may very well be the biggest #FAIL in all of development history. The vast majority of Bangladeshis did not have access to clean water during the early 1970s, which contributed to numerous diseases that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives every year. So UNICEF launched a “nationwide program to sink shallow tube wells across the country. Once a small hand pump was installed to the top of the tube, clean water rose quickly to the surface.”

By the end of the 1970s, over 300,000 tube wells had been installed and some 10 million more went into operation by the late 1990s. With access to clean water, the child mortality rate dropped by more than half, from 24% to less than 10%. UNICEF’s solution was thus “touted as a model for South Asia and the world.” In the early 1980s, however, signs of widespread arsenic poising began to appear across the country. “UNICEF had mistaken deep water for clean water and never tested its tube wells for this poison.” WHO soon predicted that “one in a hundred Bangladeshis drinking from the contaminated wells would die from an arsenic-related cancer.” The government estimated that about half of the 10 million wells were contaminated. A few years later, WHO announced that Bangladesh was “facing the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”

In a typical move that proves James Scott’s thesis Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, the Bangladeshi government partnered with the World Bank to paint the sprout of each well red if the water was contaminated and green if safe to drink. Five years and over $40 million later, the project had only been able to test half of the 10 million wells. “Officially, this intervention was hailed as almost instantaneous success.” But the widespread negative socio-economic impact and community-based conflicts that resulted from this one-off, top-down intervention calls into question the purported success of this intervention.

As Andrew and Ann explain, water use in Bangladesh (like many other countries) starts and ends with women and girls. “They are the ones who will determine if a switch to a green well is warranted because they are the ones who fetch the water in water numerous times a day.” The location of these green wells will largely determine “whether or not women and girls can access them in a way that is deemed socially appropriate.” As was the case with many of these wells, “the religious and cultural norms impeded a successful switch.”

In addition, “negotiating use of someone else’s green well was an act fraught with potential conflict.” As a result, some still used water from red-painted wells. In fact, “reports started to come in of families and communities chipping away at the red paint on their wells,” with some even repainting theirs with green. Such was the stigma of being a family linked to a red well. Indeed, “young girls living within the vicinity of contaminated wells [recall that there were an estimated 5 million such wells] suffered from diminishing marriage prospects, if they were able to marry at all.” In addition, because the government was unable to provide alternative sources of clean water for half of the communities with a red well, “many women and girls returned to surface water sources like ponds and lakes, significantly more likely to be contaminated with fecal pathogens.” As a result, “researchers estimated that abandonment of shallow tube wells increased a household’s risk of diarrheal disease by 20%.”

In 2009, a water quality survey carried out by the government found that “approximately 20 million people were still being exposed to excessive quantities of arsenic.” And so, “while the experts and politicians discuss how to find a solution for the unintended consequences of the intervention, the people of Bangladesh continue bringing their buckets to the wells while crossing their fingers behind their backs.”

I have several questions (and will omit the ones that start with WTF?). Could social media have mitigated this catastrophic disaster? It took an entire decade for UNICEF and the Bangladeshi government to admit that massive arsenic poisoning was taking place. And even then, when UNICEF finally responded to the crisis in 1998, they said “We are wedded to safe water, not tube wells, but at this time tube wells remain a good, affordable idea and our program will go on.” By then it was too late anyway since arsenic in the wells had “found their way into the food supply. Rice irrigated with the tube wells was found to contain more than nine times the normal amount of arsenic. Rice concentrated the poison, even if one managed to avoid drinking contaminated well water, concentrated amounts would just up in one’s food.”

Could social media—had they existed in the 1980s—been used to support the early findings published by local scientists 15 years before UNICEF publicly recognized (but still ignored) the crisis? Could scientists and activists have launched a public social media campaign to name and shame? Could hundreds of pictures posted on Flickr and videos uploaded to YouTube made a difference by directly revealing the awful human consequences of arsenic poisoning?

Could an Ushahidi platform powered by FrontlineSMS have been used to create a crowdsourced complaints mechanism? Could digital humanitarian volunteers from the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) have worked with local counterparts to create a live country-wide map of concerns posted anonymously by girls and women across thousands of communities in Bangladesh? Could an interactive voice response (IVR) system like this one been set up to address concerns and needs of illiterate individuals? Could a PeaceTXT approach have been used to catalyze behavior change? Can these technologies build more resilient societies that allow them to bounce back from crises like these?

And since mass arsenic poisoning is still happening in Bangladesh today, 40 years after UNICEF’s first intervention, are initiatives like the ones described above being tried at all?