Friday, November 28, 2008

Terrors, tweets, gunshots, pings, blazes, buzzes, and explosions, Mumbai

It seems almost callous to talk about cutting-edge Internet technology amidst the needless bloodbath (is there another kind?), scores killed, grieving families, children orphaned, and spiritual journeys of fathers and daughters abruptly ceased, sadly due to another's notion of a very different kind of spiritual journey. But someone has to do it, if only to see some light in the terror that has ravaged the financial capital of India these past couple of days: amid the heroic commando forces, relentless journalists, and fleeing hostages are vigilant, Internet-savvy citizens typing away about the horrors unfolding in front of their very eyes.

India – thankfully, gratefully, gratifyingly – does not have to deal with a big-brother overseer in the form of its government, or battle with blocked Internet sites and censored news Web sites. That, combined with the cyber-competence of its people, and fast-developing Internet technology allowed thousands to transmit live updates on sites such as Twitter and Flickr and YouTube. As the Wall Street Journal reports - and as I learned through a tweet from Matttbastard – tweeters were busy supplying phone numbers for hospitals and hotels under siege, making calls for donations of specific blood types, and offering prayers and well wishes. Many were relaying messages from relatives outside the city that were unable to get through due to jammed phone lines. Thanks to Indian ingenuity, even a Googlemap of the attacked sites was put up within hours. Twitter posts with the #Mumbai tag escalated as the attacks continued.

In addition to 140 character updates that disseminated the most crucial information, civilians were offering detailed reports on citizen journalism sites such as Ground Report and Mahalo. Blogs such as Metroblog turned into news services, reported CNN before turning around and asking readers for images and videos for its iReport Feature.

To me, living so far away from my home country, shooting out text messages to everyone I suspected might have been in the vicinity, and being immersed in a challenging comprehensive exam this week, Twitter offered the sort of passive information channel I so desperately needed. Thanks to some very avid tweeters, I received 20 second updates: gunmen opening fire, commandos storming in, hostages taken, operations against armed militants, hostages being released, speculation on who was behind it, and so on and so forth.

This is not the first time that technology – and people’s interest in using that technology to relay information – has helped keep up with an unfolding disaster. Local bloggers updated the world about the Russia-Georgia conflict earlier this year, as did civilians on scene at the Myanmar monk protests. One of the earliest, and perhaps most unfortunate catalysts of Internet-powered citizen journalism actually came seven years ago in the form of the September 11 attacks. Much of the information was relayed by New York residents who blogged about their personal experiences and related first-hand accounts from relatives and friends. Amateur photographers also captured many of the pictures that showed the crash of the United Airlines plane into the second World Trade tower.

When the SARS epidemic broke in China, SMS was used as a medium of communication when the government there suppressed release of information by medical authorities. In the wake of the London train bombings in the summer of 2005, some of the most powerful pictures came from citizens, owing to better and more improved cell phone cameras. No journalist could have been expected to get there fast enough to snap those telling first images.

The citizen journalism site, is credited with saving lives during Hurricane Katrina: people around the country received text messages from those afflicted, and readers relayed the messages to the Web site, which was monitored by rescue operations. Local people were also able to provide the kind of city-specific information that no out-of-town journalist would know of. Two years later, when social media sites were even more prevalent, residents kept each other informed through blogs, discussion forums, Twitter, and email lists during the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

This is not to say that social media is inculpable; there were doubts, false alarms, and erroneous alerts among the Mumbai tweets as cnet reports. Most notable among them was one calling for all updates to stop, so as not to hinder the security operations. Facts were distorted, including numbers killed and injured. But if a single twitterer managed to help save a life, inform someone of a loved one, or update thousands around the world, we could live with a couple of false alarms, I think.

In the face of sheer and utter incompetence by Indian intelligence and governmental authorities, it is indeed heartening to see ordinary civilians rise to the occasion.