The Ocean Rises

Published Date
01 - Feb - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Feb - 2005
 
The Ocean Rises
It was almost as if the ocean had decided to make itself heard against the incessant abuse it had been facing for centuries. In one of the worst natural disasters ever, the tsunami that originated near Indonesia and went on to ravage almost 10 countries in south-east Asia, the ocean let us know its might. Any or relief effort thereafter seemed inadequate when compared with the might of the catastrophe. Amidst all the chaos, even the marvel that is technology could not come to the rescue.

In hindsight, though, a significant number of the causalties could have been avoided had India availed membership of the Tsunami Warning System (TWS) in the Pacific. The TWS monitors seismological and tidal activity in the Pacific Basin and disseminates earthquake and tsunami warning information to its 26 member states within a matter of hours in case of an impending disaster.

Reports now indicate that even without the warning system, India had at least 40 minutes after the first waves hit the Andaman Islands to send out warning signals to coastal areas.

When disaster struck Indian shores, conventional communication systems were the first casualties. In the face of adversity of mammoth proportions, technology came to the rescue not only in mainland India, but also in Sri Lanka, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Thailand and Indonesia.

The Web Of Hope
As the water rose, mobile and landline networks capitulated. Phone calls were not possible. Strangely, though, SMS worked. Those who were not washed away by the waves were able to reach relatives only via SMSes. Bloggers worked overtime to broadcast the situation in their countries.

Thai local Paola di Maio, along with netizens in India and the US, set up the South-East Asia Earthquake And Tsunami Blog-www.tsunamihelp.blogspot.com  (see box above), which was a reliable source of first-hand information on the devastation wrecked by the tsunami. This and other community blogs have helped people search for their loved ones.

"The Blog Response Overwhelmed Us"
A tête-à -tête with Peter Griffin, a media consultant based in Mumbai who helped set up the Tsunami relief blog

Blog buddies Peter Griffin, Rohit Gupta, Dina Mehta (from India), Bala Pitchandi, Megha Murthy (USA) and Paola Di Saio (Thailand) set up the South-East Asia Earthquake And Tsunami (SEA-EAT) Blog-www.tsunamihelp.blogspot. com. Digit spoke with Peter Griffin on how the blog aided relief and rescue efforts.

How did the world get to know about SEA-EAT?
A day after the tsunami struck south-east Asia, Rohit and I decided to set up a collaborative blog that would try to link people who wanted to help with those that needed help. Fortunately, we had great media support right from the start. Popular sites like Boing Boing, Smart Mobs, InstaPundit and Rediff wrote about SEA-EAT. So far we have received nearly 400 e-mails from people offering or seeking help.

How did you deal with the information overload?
As the team grew, suddenly there was way too much information on the blog. Since Blogger didn't support 'sub-blogs', we installed a Wiki to sort the info and make the site easily navigable.

Our News Wiki team received a lot of 'this is not journalism' flak, though. Someone then purchased the URL (tsunamihelp.info), someone else donated server space. We were using a free search tool (Pico), which could search up to 250 posts;
but later someone 'donated' us a paid search tool.

SEA EAT also seems to have inspired 'cyber-volunteerism'.
The blog had to be updated round-the-clock. When someone in India went to sleep, someone in New Jersey would take over; when that person hit the sack, someone in California or Thailand would take over. People were blogging from home and office; some offered to redesign the blog in between hectic work schedules.

Blogger would have nearly shut us down if a chance contact in Google hadn't provided us unlimited bandwidth!
People also offered us mirror sites. An IT company, ironically named Tsunami Software (http://www.tsusoft.com/), even posted a link to SEA-EAT on their site, at the risk of losing valuable traffic.

Relief efforts that needed massive coordination of resources and manpower received an impetus from online information hubs set up by Google (www.google.com/ Tsunami_relief.html), the popular Web directory BoingBoing (www.boingboing.net) and photo-blogs and news feeds (www. 2bangkok.com/quakes.shtml).

A post about a group of orphaned children in Thailand received responses from nearly 40 people who wanted to help
Dina Mehta, Media Consultant

 Voluntary sector and media organisations in India and abroad also put up several online notices for donations. The task of searching for missing relatives and fund raising is being coordinated by BBC News online (http://news.bbc. co.uk/1/hi/ talking_point), UNICEF (www.unicefusa.org/Tsunami), CNN.com (www.cnn.com/2004/ WORLD/asiapcf/12/28/Tsunami. aidsites), Amazon.com, The Hindu online (http://pay.hindu.com/thrfpay/thrfpay.jsp) and NDTV.com.

Radio To The Rescue
The unassuming transistor radio proved to be a life-saver for locals in the Andaman and Nicobar islands and Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, two of the worst hit places in India, to receive warnings-and later, information from the Government and NGOs.

A group of amateur radio operators ('ham' radio) had embarked on an expedition to the Andamans. Gopal Madhavan of the governing council of the Amateur Radio Society of India, says, "When the earthquake and tidal waves hit the island, the phone and electricity went off and only the ham network stayed alive." Powered by a 12-volt car battery, the group set up their equipment in Port Blair in about three hours.  They had access to nearly 35,000 hams globally.

Ham operators started an emergency network and coordinated relief efforts with the Indian Army and voluntary agencies. Makeshift radio stations were set up in tsunami-hit areas of Tamil Nadu with control stations in Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Delhi. They are now assisting rescue efforts and trying to find missing persons in the islands and also coordinating with counterparts worldwide.

Rising To The Occasion
Mobile service providers in Sweden and Denmark waived incoming and outgoing call charges from south-east Asia for 48 hours post-tsunami to help survivors reach their families. In Sri Lanka and other nations, phone companies used call patterns to track users and send SMSes-the  responses helped trace stranded tourists.

Rudimentary Databases
IT experts from Bangalore, Shriram Raghavan and Sudhakar Chandra, came to the tsunami-hit Cuddalore district, TN, to help relief work but soon realised the lack of a nodal point for co-ordination.

They used MS Excel and created a database of supplies and donors and generated reports.         Raghavan states, "We had barely three hours to create the database. We then trained two volunteers and handed the database to the local   District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) officials."

Evidently, technology is helping make amends.


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