Can New Media Really Aid Disaster Relief in India? [Sikkim Earthquake]

You’ll notice interesting differences if you look at three recent disasters in India in 2011, and the kind of impact new media had on them.

Exhibit A: Mumbai blasts of July 2011. A spreadsheet was set up within hours of the blast. There were offers and requests for help on Twitter and Facebook. There were updates about traffic, taxis, roads, hospitals and helplines all over the internet. Sikkim_Earthquake

In other words, what you could well call a spontaneous outpouring of empathy and support(I’ll desist from using that much overused term ‘spirit of Mumbai’).

Exhibit B: The Delhi blasts of Sep 2011. Much outrage on Twitter & Facebook, considerable outpouring of sympathies. But nothing quite comparable to what we saw in Exhibit A – no spreadsheet, and not quite as many offers of help.

Exhibit C: Sikkim earthquake of Sep 2011. I’ll just present one data point – there were all of 23 mentions of #Sikkim on 18 Sep on Twitter. On subsequent days, the mentions of the hashtag were in single digits. A damp squib compared to exhibits A and B in new media(and to be fair, traditional media gave far less coverage and showed far less outrage).

So, what gave? Why was there such a major disparity in the reactions to the three events in digital media? Was it that Bombay had far more ‘spirit’? Did people elsewhere not care? Is there a bleeding heart story about the neglect of the North-East?

I have two hypotheses:

[A] A lot of people affected in Mumbai and Delhi were active internet users. If you see data here about state-wise distribution of internet usage in India(and make a couple of assumptions about Mumbai and Sikkim’s internet usage), Mumbai and Delhi would appear to have far more internet users than Sikkim.

In Sikkim, people who lost homes, people who didn’t know whereabouts of family members weren’t internet users. If they were, they didn’t quite believe there would be others online who’d reply.

It’s plausible to conclude that digital media didn’t have an impact in Sikkim because not enough people on the ground were connected on the ‘net.

[B] But given that Mumbai and Delhi have fairly high proportions of internet users, what caused the difference between the two cities?

Well, there were 3 blasts in Mumbai. Traffic was thrown out of gear. Many had no idea if their family members were stuck. In short, there was a pressing need for people to exchange information. Far more than there was in Delhi, where the blast was localized(and people had a far better idea of whether family members were in the court complex or not).

Thus, digital media helped in Mumbai because people wanted to exchange information urgently.

Thus, digital media can help only when people have a need to communicate, and when enough people want to communicate.

Given that new media usage hasn’t matured fully in India yet(only around 8% of Indians are online – and far fewer are active users), it’s best to set realistic expectations from new media – and not assume that it’ll solve India’s problems overnight.

Has new media matured enough in India to have lasting social impact? What do you think?

[Guest article by Shamanth Rao, Image credit]

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