It was in August of 2012, when the Habagat rains hit, that my older brother Joel and I, wanting to volunteer but not knowing where to go, did what we both knew we could do well. Build a relief website.
We were listening to Rock Ed Radio on August 7, the first night of the habagat. They were doing an overnight broadcast over Jam 88.3 to keep track of relief and rescue needs and operations. Because they were broadcasting live, Gang Badoy’s Rock Ed team functioned as a quick response team, even as all they could do from the radio booth was to coordinate between people calling for help, and officials already on the ground and trying to get to victims.
Over on Twitter, people were encouraged to use hashtags# rescuePH and #reliefPH to make it easier to keep track of requests for rescue and relief goods. Malacañang’s PCDSPO (Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office) and its people were at the forefront of organizing Twitter requests and responses. Later on Tonyo Cruz would be awarded for having thought of those hashtags.
By August 8, if I’m not mistaken, as information came in about relief operations and calls for rescue, two crowdsourced, and therefore public,excel spreadsheets started to be shared on Twitter. When I say “public,” I mean anyone could input information into these excel spreadsheets. Anyone could also delete information, as it was expected that those who were working off the rescuePHspreadsheet would update it when people were successfully rescued. Such is the notion of crowdsourcing that these spreadsheets were premised on.
These were deemed credible documents because @PCDSPO, government officials, and other government offices started sharing these. It was not obvious from whom these documents originated.
Within those first two days of the habagat, it was clear that there was a problem with the idea that hashtags and public documents were a way of organizing or keeping track of information, that is, if the goal was to make sure that people who need help are reached by people who are willing to help; if the goal was to make that information move people to action.
Crowdsourcing is the bane of Pinoy social media when the task is to gather important and relevant information in a time of crisis. The premise, after all, of crowdsourcing, as we use it in this country, is ease. What we forget is that in a time of crisis, ease is not the point, except in the sense of making it easy for people to get information, the task being to engage a public that’s willing to help by giving them up-to-date information when they ask for it.
Hashtags and crowdsourcedexcel spreadsheets make it easy to gather information, but there’s no way of making certain, or knowing, that the information’s updated. In fact the credibility of any document is lost the moment anyone inputs incorrect information; hashtags can only be credible if used with care, making sure that information being tweeted or retweeted is current and relevant. And neither the spreadsheet nor the hashtags mean a prospective donor or volunteer can easily find what they need.
My Kuya Joel, based in The Hague and who makes websites and designs information systems (among other things) for a living, was home on vacation. By the evening of August 7 last year, we both realized that hashtags and crowdsourced spreadsheets were not enough, given the breadth and scope of calls for relief, even more so given the urgency.
The decision to create a website for relief efforts was an easy one to make.
I was getting the hang of doing content development (beyond my blog), and as Kuya and I discussed how we would organize all this information gathered via hashtags and the crowdsourced documents as well as media and other online sources, the website began to take shape. As Kuya designed the site, I gathered the most relevant and updated information on relief operations, calls for relief goods and volunteers, across all areas available. As information became available —contact numbers, cash and online donations, availability of and need for transportation assistance—these became tags on the website. As more places started activating relief operations, as areas affected by the rains and floods were being identified, places became categories on the site.
The night of the 8th, the site was live and with relevant information. We stayed up for that evening’s Rock Ed Radio broadcast, updated information given the calls they received, sent them information as they asked for it. Kuya can, of course, tell about www.reliefph.com better than I ever could:
“The site allowed us to post relief information once, have them appear chronologically, and help users navigate the information by making it searchable and categorized by location and type of relief required/requested. It also allowed us to provide more detail and make corrections efficiently as needed. Both the site and the information were designed to inform users of the urgency of the needs, who to contact, and whether it was still required or relevant.
“It was also important to us that information was verifiable. So calls for relief on twitter would be put up on the site with the twitter handle that announced that need. We went through the excel spreadsheet for relief efforts (tweeted by government offices), and posted other relief efforts that could be verified with phone numbers, email addresses or websites.
“We used twitter and the hashtag to drive traffic to the site by having each post automatically tweeted on the @ReliefPHcom account with a link back to the full details on reliefph.com.”
On the morning of the 9th, we received tweets asking who was running the site. It was not a question that Kuya and I welcomed because we didn’t think it important who put up the site. What mattered then, and matters still, is that the information being put up is credible and relevant. What matters still is that it’s updated, and provides people with the easiest way of finding information. You have cash donations? Click on that. You’re from Cavite? Click on that.
Until after the habagat, and Kuya had gone home to The Hague, our names were never put on that site; it still isn’t there. I talk about the site now because I realize a year hence, that while government has stopped using those excel spreadsheets (thank heavens!) and links to information that we put up on www.reliefph.com, Pinoy social | new | digital media has still got a lot to learn as far as using the Internet for relief operations is concerned.
Jpeg images are good for posting announcements on Twitter or Facebook, but the bigger that image is, the more difficult it becomes to open it. For sites and individuals that want to consolidate contact information, the more productive way is to provide these numbers as text, the easier to copy-and-paste with. Putting together a site for listing evacuation centers? Have a search bar, and categorize by place. An alphabetical arrangement just doesn’t cut it, when we do not even know the names of evacuation centers.
It would be great too if the bigger media companies, mainstream and “new” like rappler.com, could have it in themselves to acknowledge work that’s being done by sites like www.reliefph.com instead of only pushing their own articles on relief efforts and operations. After all, if more updated lists of relief operations and calls for relief goods and volunteers exist online, why refuse to use that information? Especially since it is also a website that refers back to you when it obtains information from your site.
Ah, but it seems we do not know to be big enough, yes? Maybe a sense of competition gets in the way?
But in a time of crisis, competing for information (and website hits) should be the last thing on our minds. This is also why Kuya and I always thought our names didn’t need to be appended to www.reliefph.com. The website should speak for itself, and gain credibility because of the kind of information it gathers, but even more important because of the way in which it gathers information. Again, Kuya:
“We didn’t want our personas getting in the way of the information we were providing (all of which cited sources more reputable than either of us anyway).”
Alas, that has yet to be the point for too many in Pinoy social media. And as we go through the tragedy that is these rains and floods too often every year, it’s become more and more obvious that the goal is not simply about helping and putting information out there anymore, as it is to be celebrated as individuals or organizations when the rain lets up.
I speak of www.reliefph.com now only to say this: I will welcome the day when Kuya and I can take the site down. Because that will mean there is no need for it anymore, maybe someone is doing it better, or has money to actually pay a team of people to do it. Even better if it means that those pork barrel funds are finally going to the real concrete needs of our people, in times of tragedy and otherwise.