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Aid for flood victims in 2.0, or how Chinese Internet users reinvented well-known tools

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Following a series of disastrous floods in central China in July 2021, local Internet users began organizing aid for the affected people through widely available on-line tools.

Clouds literally broke over the city of Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, on July 20, and a never-seen-before, severe rainfall  came. The Chinese media labeled it as the flood of the millennium. Within just one hour, the city and surrounding areas saw the equivalent of a statistical four-month rainfall. The daily precipitation volume, in turn, exceeded the total amount of water the city would have experienced in … an entire year. No drainage system could have possibly withstood this.

Days of rain have caused widespread damage, dozens of people died (10 days after the flood, the authorities report at least 70 deaths). People were flooded up to their necks in subway cars, rivers teeming with cars flowed through the streets, the ground opened up in random places burying those who tried to help others. 

Cooks to the rescue

Once the rainfall have ceased, and the water began to recede, the rescue operation began in earnest. The Chinese media reported the first days when the rescuers and victims had been eating only instant soups that made their mouths hurt because of too hard noodles that could not be heated up. In response, residents of surrounding towns began to organize aid and would take self-developed convoys with hot meals cooked especially for people in Zhengzhou or Xinxiang. They said they would feel bad knowing that there was a rescue operation going on near them and they would just idly stay home and not help their neighbors. 

Still, how come people would have known where help was needed most? An unusual phenomenon occurred, as sheets from Tencent Docs, China’s equivalent of Google Docs with lists of the needy, spontaneously complemented the operations of conventional emergency services. Such a document was open to anyone interested, it enabled people to see what and where they needed to do or drive, and even to locate people from the worst affected areas and offer them transportation to a safe, dry place.

A document for all victims

An on-line document titled “list of people in need of help” has gone viral on the Chinese web. The service is provided by Tencent, the giant that owns WeChat, an instant messaging service used by more than a billion users. Right after the storm on the night of July 20, it was developed by Li Rui, a student from Henan province currently studying in Shanghai. Information about her project can be found here, and here is an hour-by-hour breakdown of the event.

Arkusz kalkulacyjny stworzony przez Li rozwinął się w kompleksowy system informacji ratowniczych.

The spreadsheet created by Li Rui has evolved into a comprehensive emergency information system.

36 hours later, it was being edited by more than two hundred volunteers. The chart was visited two and a half million times in a few days, and was edited 20,000 times. Along with information about those in need, Li (who would sign as Manto) and other editors posted advice about what to avoid during floods. They reminded people not to touch electrical wires and to follow safety rules. 

A similar solution has been applied to the Shimo platform, which shares cloud-based documents open to users. The Chinese Internet prevents Google from entering its market, so the company’s apps we all know are unavailable there. Numerous Chinese equivalents are taking their place. 

Social media was also used to help speed up rescue efforts. The Weibo social media platform, the equivalent of Twitter (also banned in the Chinese market), served as one of the information centers for the effects of the floods. The already mentioned massively popular instant messaging app WeChat, which in China is used for literally everything (as a virtual wallet, an application to buy tickets, a central access point to applications), added to its offer a so-called mini software, a kind of application built in the communicator (this solution is not yet used in our country, it’s hard to compare it to something known from our market), through which helpers placed their messages to the victims from Zhengzhou and its vicinity. Such a mini software successfully connected the needy with the volunteers. 

Next generation drone

Corporations also came to the rescue China Mobile, China’s telecommunications giant, sent Pterodactyl 2H drones over flooded areas to act as mobile telecommunications masts. One such drone operates the network over a 50 km radius. The one sent over the city of Mihe operated a total of more than 2,500 users and nearly 650 at a time. The company that makes Pterodactyls, Aviation Industry Corporation of China, in June 2021 was put on the Joe Biden administration’s list of companies denied entry to the U.S. market. 

Alibaba, a leader not only in Chinese but also in global e-commerce, announced the transfer of several tranches of aid funds worth 100 million yuan (approx. USD 15.5 million) each. The AutoNavi maps provided by the company were overlaid with information about flooded areas. The corporation’s supply arm, Cainiao, has pledged to take care of supplying Zhengzhou residents with the most needed products for free. Last but not least, ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, donated 100 million yuan to children in the affected areas. The aim is to help orphanages and schools that were affected by the flood.