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Russia: Crowdsourcing assistance for victims of wildfires

[This post was originally published on Ushahidi's blog. Ushahidi is an open-source mapping tool that was developed in Kenya at a time of crisis in 2008 and has since been used for crowdsourcing worldwide .]

Since last week, following an unprecedented heat wave, wildfires continue to threaten much of the western part of Russia, including the Moscow region. At least 40 people were killed, and 77 towns or villages were damaged, thousands of people were left without homes and have lost everything they had. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev declared an emergency situation in 7 regions, however it looks like the authorities have significant problems coordinating information, assistance and providing prompt help to the victims.

The Russian online community, including bloggers from the Livejournal.com blogosphere, are very active not only in covering tragic events, but also in self-organizing in order to provide help to those who need it. A special community called “Pozar_Ru” has been launched for those interested in helping. However, unlike in earthquakes when most of the damage is caused at once, new epicenters of the wildfires emerge almost every hour and it happens in a very wide territory. As a consequence, it creates information overload and makes coordination of help by an online community more difficult. What's missing is a platform that would assist in coordinating information flow and help efforts.

On July 31, I wrote in my blog a post titled “Wildfires require using ‘Ushahidi’ in Russia”. I wrote of the role of Ushahidi, an online platform for collecting and visualizing information,  in Haiti and Chile and argued that using this tool is even more appropriate for the current situation in Russia. Within a few hours, the post was re-posted by a well known Russian oppositional blogger Marina Litvinovich and circulated within the Pozar_Ru community. It attracted a lot of attention to the platform and created a dynamic discussion. The next day, Alexey Sidorenko, a blogger on Altz-gamer and an editor of Global Voices Runet Echo project launched Ushahidi.

Russian-fires.ru

Russian-fires.ru

The website is Russian-fires.ru and is titled “Russian fires 2010″. Sidorenko used the Russian version previously translated for the use in Kyrgyzstan. Alexey also called for Russian programmers to join him in further development of the platform through a popular Russian IT blog, Habrahabr. Marina Litvinovich also called for volunteers to join to the team that will manage and contribute information to the new platform.

The main purpose of the platform, is not mapping the wildfires, but primarily building the bridge between those citizens who need help and those who wish to help. It is reflected by categories of the map that includes “What is needed” (subcategories: need home, need clothes, need food, need evacuation etc.) and “I wish to help” (subcategories: “I have clothes”; “I have transport”; “I have food”; etc.). The map also shows “centers of assistance” and places where people who lost their homes can spend the night.

“Russian Fires 2010″ is the first time Ushahidi is being used in Russia for this particular purpose, and probably the first time that Russians online have turned to an independent crowdsourcing platform. The project has been live for only one day, but it already has a strong core team and dozens of reports. Please note that there might be some bugs on the site (character encoding issues to be sorted out) and other early stage problems, but the team hopes to solve the problems, study the platform and look for additional assistance.

We can't be sure if the first Russian Ushahidi will be a story of success, but it is already clear that Russia is a unique place for using “Ushahidi” due to high degree of activism and mutual assistance among the online community. The speed that “Ushahidi” was launched proves it. “Let the technology let us to help each other” says the “Russian Fires 2010″ website. Let's hope this slogan comes true.

For any assistance, advice or any type of input you can write to Gregory Asmolov, gregory [dot] asmolov [at] gmail dot com or Alexey Sidorenko, sidorenko [dot] a [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thank you, and please let others in Russia know about the site.

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