Smartmobbing Disaster Relief
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Jan 20 08:00:00 GMT 2005

I wasn't surprised when people used sms, blogs, cameraphones and wikis to organize relief efforts during the first hours after the tsunami of 2005. If you can smartmob political demonstrations, elections and performance art, you can smartmob disaster relief. I observed two of my friends on opposite sides of the world doing just that.

Dina Mehta, a blogger who lives in Mumbai, India, was my guest for a day when she passed through California, and Alex Nieminen, who blogs from Helsinki, Finland, has also been a guest in my home, and my guide to Helsinki on more than one occasion. It came as no surprise to learn that they each swiftly mobilized online networks -- they are both people-networkers as well as pioneering Internet publishers in their native countries.

I learned about Dina first. As well as writing her own blog, Dina contributes to a groupblog I also follow, Worldchanging. Within hours of the disaster, Dina and Rohit Gupta, another Mumbai-based Worldchanging blogger, helped start the Tsunami Help blog, also known as "The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami page," which quickly turned into an effective clearinghouse for information about how to contribute funds to relief agencies. Two weeks later, Dina told me, "A few hours after the tsunamis struck, I started by posting at the blog ... then as more folk started contributing with posts, I looked into setting up and coordinating efforts around the wiki, as I felt resources were getting lost in blog posts -- so I got the domain and bandwidth and we built the wiki pages and got volunteers to build the collections. The other activity was coordinating efforts of this group of over 150 volunteers and contributors -- which was done by a few people, including me. We have now gathered a tremendous resource on aid, relief, donations and volunteers for the disaster. That works to bridge those who are suffering with those that can help."

In Finland, a website for Finnish SCUBA enthusiasts rapidly became an ad-hoc information center for Finns seeking information about friends and family members who were traveling in the disaster zone -- even specifying to which hospitals individual survivors had been taken. The rapidity and reliability of the information was possible because of the pre-existing network of locals in the Thai SCUBA diving world, the Thai-New Zealand-Finnish Raya Divers association, communicating through phone, SMS and e-mail with their counterparts in Helsinki. Alex Nieminen, who I've known since he was the teenage instigator of Internet activities in Finland in the 1990s, happened to host a site for a friend, linking Finnish dive enthusiasts with resources in Thailand and elsewhere. They normally receive about 300 hits a day. As soon as the tsunami hit, the site began posting names of missing and found Finns, and nearly a million people visited during the following week.

The Internet's worldwide, multimedia, many-to-many information broadcasting capabilities and power to link strangers who share interests, joined to the ubiquity and instantaneous communications of mobile phones, enables people to organize collective action in new ways, with new populations and in new places. Those capabilities have been growing for years, although tsunami relief brought them into public visibility. The tsunami was the first disaster of global scale that called for the kind of onsite-to-global-and-back-again powers that such ad-hoc networks can provide.

Nieminen, Mehta and the online social networks they tapped and wove are two out of many examples. The instant and generous use of e-commerce transaction technologies enabled an unprecedented citizen fund-raising effort: During the first week after the disaster, while the United States took three days to pledge $15 million, thousands of citizens contributed more than $9 million to the American Red Cross through Amazon, which contributed its trusted e-commerce machinery to the citizen contribution effort. While citizen-journalists on the wired Internet end used their blogs to publish and publicise photographs, reports, lists of people and lists of needed resources, they made use of streams of mobile voice and text-message reports, directly from the many scenes of the disaster.

My Switzerland-based blogger friend, Emily Turettini, catalogued reports of use of mobile phones and SMS in the immediate wake of the disaster: SMS messages in Malaysia warning road users not to use the Penang Bridge, and a blogger and television producer who lives in Sri Lanka text-messaged live reports to co-editors of the group blog Chiens San Frontiers, including information about what was needed in specific locations. BBC News reported that text messages were able to get through even when cell phone signals were too weak to support spoken messages. Phone companies in Sri Lanka tracked the physical location of mobile phone users and sent SMS messages to help locate missing people. Phone operators around the world immediately offered free calls and SMS and donated mobile phones to relief workers. A Spanish SMS campaign raised nearly $6 million in two days. Similar campaigns, enabling people to contribute via SMS, sprouted all over the world.

Andy Carvin from the Digital Divide Network set up a news aggregator of RSS feeds and first-person blogs. ICQ set up up a Tsunami Tragedy Communication Center. Flickr helped people post missing persons photos. Blogger reported on a way to donate air miles to the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, OxFam, Unicef, and others. The Swedish online community LunarStorm organized a national, 24/7 online support network.

Online efforts will never be an effective substitute for getting experienced, trained and well-equipped relief workers on the ground. But posting and finding a photograph of a loved one, finding out what hospital a relative is in and sending millions of dollars in small contributions to established relief organizations, have all proved to be not only possible but effective. Perhaps most important: people are beginning to think about how to prepare for the next mobilization, learn from their mistakes and take advantage of the capabilities that the online response to tsunami relief have provided.