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.