After weeks of unusually high temperatures and a drought, forests began to burn in central and western Russia, sparking wildfires across the country. It quickly became clear that the organization of the firefighting was inadequate and the government’s response was lacking.
How could the Russian online community—known for a high degree of activism—help?
When the fires first began, members of the Russian blogosphere were discussing what was going on and where the fires were located. By July 29, the online community realized that the disaster was reaching a national scale: It was no longer confined to one small region.
A LiveJournal community called Pozar Ru (see the translated screenshot below) was launched as a place where volunteers could publish repots about where the fires were and what villages were at risk. Other users began posting offers of help to assist the citizens who were fighting fires on the own. A group of bloggers soon found themselves coordinating volunteers and working with victims of the wildfire disaster.
On July 31, Gregory Asmolov, coeditor of the RuNet Echo team at Global Voices, blogged that in a situation like the one Russia was in, the Ushahidi platform could be helpful for coordinating efforts to help victims.
Marina Litvinovich, a well-known Russian opposition blogger, saw Gregory’s post and copied what he had written for her audience to read, asking if there were any volunteers who could help implement Ushahidi. Meanwhile, Gregory wrote to Alexey Sidorenko, RuNet Echo’s other coeditor, asking if he thought they could lead the deployment of the Ushahidi platform. Alexey agreed and they quickly moved forward to customize the platform.
THE TOOLS AND TACTICS
Alexey, while familiar with Ushahidi, had never implemented the platform himself before. He began by registering a domain, http://russian-fires.ru/, and installing the Ushahidi package, using the Russian version previously translated for use in Kyrgyzstan.
On habrahabr, a Russian IT-community website, he asked for technical assistance from anyone willing to volunteer their time to help. He received many offers to help moderate and support the platform—there were over 84 comments on his post alone. Gregory approached newspapers and radio stations and asked them to publicize HelpMap. The group also used Facebook and the Russian social network Vkontakte to spread the word. As Gregory recalls, "The outreach was pretty successful since on the first day of the project we were already covered by the First State TV channel. The fact that a major Russian internet company, Yandex, offered cooperation and embedded our information in their platform also played a significant role."
Once HelpMap was up and running, reports came flooding in. The platform was used to upload reports of fires and to map the location of fires, smoke reports, calls for help, offers for help, and the location of aid centers. As Gregory wrote on the Ushahidi blog, “The main purpose of the platform is not mapping the wildfires, but primarily building the bridge between those citizens who need help and those who wish to help. It is reflected by categories of the map that includes 'What is needed' (subcategories: need home, need clothes, need food, need evacuation, etc.) and 'I wish to help' (subcategories: 'I have clothes'; 'I have transport'; 'I have food,' etc.).” Since new fires were emerging daily, Ushahidi was important for sharing information as the fires spread. A volunteer community comprised of RuNet Echo’s team, other bloggers, journalists, techies, and programmers helped moderate the reports coming in and work through bugs.
Within one week, HelpMap received over 100,000 unique visitors and 262,500 page views. So far, they have received over 1,000 reports, with an average of 50 reports being added daily. The group set up a coordination center to accelerate coordination between victims and volunteers as well as a hotline to field calls coming in. Sample reports include volunteers offering transportation to others helping out with relief efforts, locating charity organizations in different cities, and calls for equipment like chainsaws and generators.
THE STUMBLING BLOCKS
Like any project being launched for the first time, Gregory, Alexey, and their team of volunteers encountered a number of obstacles and learned some important lessons.
Once HelpMap went live, there was a huge amount of traffic to the site, which overwhelmed the platform. Alexey quickly learned that “people who want to install Ushahidi should seriously consider finding a powerful server to host the platform.” Eventually, a Russian server company offered more powerful hosting. Since this was only the second time the Russian version of Ushahidi was deployed, they also faced a number of technical problems with localizing and internationalizing the reports coming in. Alexey took to Ushahidi’s community forum to post problems he was having with encoding data, writing: “When editing a category or a page, the previously entered text appears to be in the wrong encoding” but didn’t receive any helpful feedback on the site until days later. He recommends that more support is needed on the forum and through Ushahidi documentation, saying, "For now, those who implement Ushahidi should be prepared to rely on themselves only.”
By trying to deploy Ushahidi quickly, the team also did not have the time to complete security or background checks on all of the different people around Russia offering assistance, so having a certain degree of trust amongst each other was essential. Fortunately, the volunteers, who had access to the administrative panel and FTP, were not up to anything malicious.
The group has experienced trouble setting up an SMS short code because no mobile phone companies were willing to donate a code. An internet SMS company eventually helped them launch an SMS portal, and they began spreading the message: "Send SMS to number 4440. SMS must begin with the words «FIRE«. Enter your message (What? Where? When?) and leave your cell phone and/or e-mail address so we can contact you!" There continue to be technical problems with receiving reports via SMS; the majority of reports have been fielded through the website or phone calls.
Like other instances where Ushahidi has been deployed, the team also learned that running a site like HelpMap takes a lot of time and manpower. As the team of people offering help was growing, more time had to be spent coordinating volunteer efforts, and moderators spent many hours offline validating messages.
For a project pulled together so quickly, HelpMap, by all accounts, was—and continues to be—extremely successful and useful. They generated a lot of interest in the project, from the large number of page views to traditional and social media coverage within Russia and internationally.
As Alexey wrote on Global Voices, “To draw a bottom line, the secret of such fast online popularity is that the project has filled the coordination gap and satisfied the demand for information. A lot of people expected such a project to come from the government" but assistance wasn’t coming quickly enough from the Russian Ministry of Emergencies.
Gregory noted that the “wildfires in Russia show that there's a great potential for mutual aid in the Russian society. It seems to me that this potential is even stronger because many Russians realize that the government is incapable of functioning, and the only option in this situation is to act independently. However, while the potential for mutual aid is great, to make this mutual aid effective, mechanisms are needed in order to make it function. And that's the strategic role of Ushahidi. As a matter of a fact, Ushahidi becomes in this context a civil society institution. These are the first steps to the reality in which the public forms alternative mechanisms and institutions in order to fill the vacuum of government structures."
In total, approximately 1,300 reports were submitted through HelpMap Russia, with the majority of those reports coming from the Moscow area and other western cities. The greatest number of reports came during the peak of the wildfires, between July 31 and August 19. They continue to field reports asking for help assisting victims who lost their homes and all of their belongings. Many recent reports sprung up after more fires occurred in the Volgograd region.
The fires may be shrinking, but Gregory and Alexey believe that HelpMap will continue to play a significant role. They hope that the presence of HelpMap can help continue to draw attention of the wildfire victims and the assistance that they will need in both the short and long term. Time will tell if government promises to aid the victims will be fulfilled, but it is evident that there is a community on HelpMap and LiveJournal willing to help fellow Russians. HelpMap's purpose may also eventually extend beyond the wildfires and be used to help Russian citizens with other problems. Gregory notes, "I find it pretty symbolic that the HelpMap already received its first message that is not about wildfires"—about floods in northern Russia.blog comments powered by Disqus