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Protocol | China

Chinese web users are writing a new playbook for disaster response

Faced with horrific flooding, web users, companies and governments are using shared docs, social media and drones in clever new ways.

Chinese people walking through floodwaters

Chinese web users are employing novel methods to spread information amid severe flooding.

Photo: Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Severe floods caused by torrential rains in Central China's Henan province have killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands of residents since last weekend. In parallel with local and central governments' disaster relief and rescue efforts, Chinese web users have organized online, using technology in novel ways to mitigate risks and rescue those who were trapped in subway cars and neighborhoods submerged in floodwaters.

Chinese web users are no strangers to digital crowdsourcing efforts. During the COVID-19 outbreak, volunteers archived censored media reports and personal stories of suffering from disease or injustice that were scattered on social media, saving them on sharable files on GitHub and broadcasting them via Telegram. Despite pervasive censorship, in times of crisis, Chinese web users have managed to keep information and communications channels open among themselves, and with the rest of the world.

Now, people in one of the most oppressive information environments in the world might be helping write the future playbook for disaster response.

Shared docs powered by civilians

In hard-hit Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan province, tens of thousands of residents crowdsourced relief assistance over the past 48 hours through a simple shared spreadsheet powered by the Tencent equivalent of Google Sheets (Google products are banned in China). It was created by a college student to allow those awaiting rescue to log their contact and location information.

In the 36 hours that followed, droves of volunteers have logged on, vastly expanding the breadth of information that lives on the document. It now includes contact information for official and unofficial rescue teams, relief resources, shelter locations, phone-charging stations and online medical consultations. At certain points, over 200 people have edited the sheet simultaneously.

Tencent reported that by Wednesday evening Beijing time, volunteers had entered nearly 1,000 data points. The document has received over 2.5 million visits, becoming the most visited Tencent Doc ever and one of the most efficient and powerful rescue and aid platforms started and contributed by civilians.

Similar crowdsourced documents for flooding victims live elsewhere on the internet. On Shimo Docs, a cloud-based productivity suite developed by the Beijing-based startup Shimo, volunteers have aggregated relief and rescue resources' contacts by cities and counties. These shared documents have made the rounds on social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat in the past few days.

Mass mutual aid on social media

In the meantime, ad hoc rescue efforts have taken off on social media platform Weibo. Tens of thousands of affected residents in Henan province have sent out individual calls for help and resources in certain areas under specific "super topics" (超话) and hashtags, some of which are managed and moderated by local authorities. Hundreds of thousands of other Weibo users are helping by spreading the word through reposts. Topics about rescue efforts and disaster relief in Henan have received tens of billions of visits. Many Weibo users' feeds have been flooded with devastating news, videos and images related to flooding victims in Henan.

WeChat, the all-encompassing app that most people in China rely heavily upon in their daily life and work, quickly created a Mini Program (that is, a mini app embedded in the WeChat ecosystem) that allows affected individuals as well as shelters and individuals offering help to submit their contact and location information.

Drones to restore telecommunications

Residents in Mihe, a small town in Henan that was severely impacted by flooding, received a text message from China Mobile, one of China's largest telecommunications operators, which notified them that cell phone signals knocked out due to a power outage would be restored for five hours by a drone called Pterodactyl 2H (also known as Wing Loong II-H, "翼龙"-2H) — Pterodactyl 2H's longest allowable flight time.

The Aviation Industry Corporation of China, the state-owned aerospace and defense company and manufacturer of the drone, said on Weibo that the Pterodactyl 2H was an emergency disaster relief drone designed and manufactured for China's Ministry of Emergency Management. It can restore mobile public network telecommunications within 50 square kilometers of radius and enable audio and video communication within 15,000 square kilometers.

The Ministry of Emergency Management reported on Weibo that the drone arrived in Mihe around 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and by 8 p.m., it had connected with 2,572 mobile phone users, with maximum single access of 648 users at one point.

The Pterodactyl 2H is a disaster relief drone designed based on its prototype, Pterodactyl 2, an unmanned aerial vehicle for military uses. Their manufacturer and designer, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, was listed in June by the Biden administration on an investment ban.

Zeyi Yang contributed reporting.

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