As floodwater rose, Filipinos called for help -- online

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As floodwater in the Philippines covered roads and marooned families, the calls for help spread in Manila:

A woman and her 2-year-old trapped in their townhouse. A college professor and his family stuck in a subdivision amid rising water. People sought drinking water, noodles, canned goods and volunteers to get supplies to the needy.


For many, information about what they needed was spread by friends and strangers using Twitter, Facebook and the other digital tools on their mobile phones.

“Pregnant woman needs help! Staying on a roof near 54 Kapiligan St,” said one message spread through Twitter on Tuesday, giving details of her location in Quezon City.

More than 500 people retweeted that call for help. One Twitter user in Manila replied, “called already the rscue team hope that they will come there on time.”

Officials estimated that dozens of people had drowned or been killed in landslides as a result of monsoon rains that pounded the Philippines in recent days. So many online messages of people in trouble poured out that Filipinos began working to sort them. Government relief workers, volunteers and others used common hashtags such as #reliefPH and #rescuePH to help categorize the different messages online.

Filipino volunteers began cataloging urgent reports using a Google Spreadsheet with the time, location, description of the alert and who reported it, often using Twitter. Alerts were changed from red to green once people were rescued. The government shared Google Maps showing relief centers and where to donate on its website.

“The Philippines is incredibly agile and well versed in using social media,” said Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute. “The question is how to manage all this data. This huge volume of information is not about to decrease any time soon.”

Seven years ago, less than half of Philippine households had a mobile phone; last year 80% of them did, according to the World Bank. The Philippines now has the 10th highest number of Twitter accounts in the world, according to a newly released analysis from Semiocast; another analysis ranks it eighth. Filipinos were already known as avid texters, so efficiently using SMS messages to mobilize protests that former President Joseph Estrada reportedly lamented that he had been ejected by a “coup de text.” Filipino Web users now devote more time to social networking than Internet users elsewhere, embracing the unofficial title “Social Media Capital of the World.”

Meier sees what has happened in the Philippines as a model for how humanitarian organizations, often slow to capitalize on social media, can manage the torrent of information emerging from disasters. In Haiti, where social media is less common, Harvard researchers were able to detect a cholera outbreak weeks before authorities by homing in on online messages, Meier said.

In the Philippines, the government has embraced the phenomenon, but social media also can prove embarrassing to state officials if Internet users outpace them during disasters, he said.

“Being able to coordinate response without the state gets people to say, ‘What the heck is the state doing?’” Meier said.

The skies cleared Thursday in Manila and floodwater began to recede. At least 49 people died during the flooding that lasted for days, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said. Dozens more died in an earlier typhoon.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Residents evacuate from a suburb of Manila on Thursday. Credit: Jay Directo / AFP/Getty Images