by Swati Singh
The government of Thailand should learn a lesson from how social media were used by its citizens during this year’s floods to provide accurate information and connect with the rest of the world.
Bangkok and the surrounding areas were flooded with waist-high water beginning in July and government is predicting some areas will remain flooded into the new year. The latest reports say at least 564 people were killed and 113,000 were displaced from their homes. Starting in March, Koi Samui, one of the most popular tourist destinations received warnings of heavy rains and flash floods. Over the next two months, bad weather resulted in a poor tourism season in several areas of Thailand. By mid-July and August, the water from the Chao Phraya River flowing from north to south overflowed Bangkok’s dams.
Practices such as diversion of water from the north into farmlands instead of reservoirs and deforestation coupled with nature’s wrath led to the flooding. The fact that Bangkok is built on wetlands contributed to the rapid buildup of the water despite the city’s good drainage system.
Perhaps one of the biggest failures during the flooding was the mismanagement and lack of communication between the media, government and foreign companies that were operating factories and plants in Thailand such as Toshiba Semiconductors, Mitsubishi Motors and Canon. Due to a lack of accurate flood information and preventive measures, the companies could not react in time and save their plants and machinery. The communication problem was worsened by the lack of English speaking media in Thailand. The rest of the world lacked access to real time information that prevented timely rescue and damage control that cost foreign companies and investors millions.
In contrast, people in Thailand turned to social media for accurate information and personal stories. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Google were some tools used by ordinary citizens to record and upload flood information. People also turned to social media for information as circulation of newspapers was affected.
The government of a country plays the key role in disaster management after a natural disaster. However Google demonstrated that technology and social media could also play an important role. By aggregating information from various sources, the Google Crisis Project was used to set up an interactive “Response Map” which utilized satellite imagery to provide a bird’s eye view of flood affected areas, locations with parking and health care services and other such features.
A Google user from Thailand also created a Google Doc called “Bangkok Flood Info” that lists emergency phone numbers and information on public services for the English-speaking population. Any user can edit or add information, giving more power to the people.
One Thai digital media agency reported more than 500,000 people in Thailand used Twitter to share information during the months of August and September 2011. According to MCFIVA, a digital media agency that holds rights to Twitter in Thailand, the site saw a user increase of 20 percent. Hash tags such as “#Thaiflood” and “#ThaiFloodEng” became popular sources of information for Twitter users.
YouTube videos received tens of thousands of hits with people and celebrities uploading their personal stories. Videos ranged from being funny to motivational. People could post and view videos of local efforts such as food relief and rescue missions. The now famous “Roo Su! Flood” (“know and beat the flood”) video on Youtube achieved semi-cult status. The educational video uses animated characters to educate viewers about common problems and solutions related to flooding. Subtitles are provided in English.
Facebook pages dedicated to the floods also gained prominence for sharing photographs, information and motivational stories. Tumblr, another social media tool, was used to create a special page for sharing funny photographs or messages that could be accessed by an online account on Tumblr or through the Facebook account of a user. Called the “Thai Hacks page” with the tagline of “Necessity is the mother of invention,” the page gained traction as people shared photographs such as children tying plastic tubs with nets to make a boat or people hanging their motorbikes with ropes on trees. Social media definitely helped people find their funny bone in a life-threatening situation.
The example of Thailand’a floods, in my opinion, creates a strong case for governments to combine social media tools with the more traditional media such as radio and TV in communication planning. This would ensure accuracy and innovation of information during various stages of a natural disaster. This would especially help governments in countries, which lack an English speaking media to connect with foreign governments, donor agencies and other important stakeholders.
(The photo is by Daniel Julie of Paris, France via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a video report from Al Jazeera English on the effects of the flooding on Thailand’s business community, please check below.)