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Initiated-in-India online venture faces up to global disasters

By Frederick Noronha, IANS,

Bangalore : Myanmar’s Cyclone Nargis reminds us that we can’t stop nature’s fury. But a group of techies and communicators believe they can help people cope with such tragedies – via cyberspace.

Worldwidehelp.blogspot.com is an online venture started with volunteers, including those from Mumbai, following the tsunami of December 2004. Currently, it has been continuing its work at disaster time in different parts of the globe, in varying ways.

“We’re trying to get information about the situation in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis. If you have access to reliable information about the situation on ground and what kind of help is needed, leave a note in the comments at (our blog),” said Mumbai-based Peter Griffin, who has long been behind the online site.

The blog was started by some founders and members of the SEA EAT (South East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami) blog, wiki and database. The latter gained worldwide attention at the time of the earthquake and tsunami on Dec 26, 2004.

Now called The World Wide Help Group, it has since remobilised to aid in other relief efforts.

Today, it has spawned a number of other online ventures – The South East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami blog, the Tsunami Help Wiki, Tsunami Enquiries and Helplines or Emergency Services, Tsunami News Updates, Tsunami Help Offered, Tsunami Help Needed, and more.

It also has ventures focussing on Asia Quake, Mumbai Help, Cloudburst Mumbai (which caused widespread flooding in India’s commercial capital), Katrina Help wiki, Katrina Help blog, Rita Help blog, Quake Help blog, Quake Help wiki and SMS Quake.

Each is a well-crafted initiative that adds value.

Currently, the homepage of Worldwidehelp.blogspot.com has news from the cyclone in Myanmar, earthquakes in Nevada, a less-lethal quake in western Indonesia, wildfires in California, and more.

“The group is international. There are some Indians, but we are not really worried about nationalities here. Yes, the three people who started it (in 2004) were in India,” said Griffin, who describes himself as a freelance communications consultant, writer, blogger, online relief worker.

Others who thought of an online response to the tsunami, which drew a lot of attention and success, then included researcher and influential blogger Dina Mehta and journalist-writer Rohit Gupta, also Mumbai-based.

“As the magnitude of the situation seeped in, I shuttled between TV, computer and cellphone, seeking news, information, ways to help, anything. News there was, aplenty. But nothing about how one could help,” said Griffin.

“I had been exchanging SMSes with Rohit Gupta, founder of an online collaboration project I was part of. It struck us that the best thing we could do would be to collate information, put it all together in one place and tell people about it,” he added

The trick was to collaborate.

Coverage in major portals, The New York Times and The Guardian helped make their work in the tsunami case far more effective.

“The group self-organised over email, SMS and instant messengers. An email list8 became the main channel for group communication; instant chats and conferences happened via Yahoo! Messenger,” Griffin recalled.

From everyone trying to do everything at the same time, the team evolved sets of duties, he said.

Janitors cleaned up posts, monitors checked information that readers were leaving, linkers ensured that data stayed current, a few worked out a system for answering questions from the press, those with the right contacts networked with NGOs and aid agencies.

“The blog grew. And grew,” he said.

Griffin said the idea is to help people know how they could help in times of major crisis and where their help would be most effective. Information was the fuel, which drove such initiatives.

“Food? Sleep? Dispensable luxuries. Party invitations were declined without a whimper. People apologised profusely for the time it took to commute between work and home PCs,” Griffin recalled the days of relief work post the tsunami.

But the tsunami was not one-off. The initiative, which was thought of in India, has continued to play an online role whenever there was a major global disaster: Mumbai floods in July 2005, Hurricane Katrina in Florida (August 2005), Pakistan’s earthquake (October 2005), floods in Suriname (May 2006), and more.

Besides mere statistics of death, WorldWideHelp reminds one of the human dimensions of disaster.

According to the information on the site, in just three days of the cyclone hitting Myanmar, the price of drinking water in Yangon has increased 500 percent and the price of rice has increased 60 percent. There are no telephones or electricity and airports – with the exception of Yangon international airport – are closed. It is estimated that one million citizens may be without food, water, and shelter.