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Russian-Fires.ru, First Ushahidi Experience

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more
Screenshot of "Help Map", source: russian-fires.ru

Screenshot of "Help Map", source: russian-fires.ru

Bloggers’ response to continuing wildfires in central Russia [EN] has shown that the Russian blogosphere is capable of fast mobilization, cooperation and solidarity when it comes to natural disasters. The RuNet Echo team of Global Voices Online not only observed the blogosphere's reaction to the wildfires, but became one of the few centers of coordination of volunteers and victims of the disaster [EN].

Following several weeks of unusual heat, Russian forests started to burn. The wildfires started in different places almost simultaneously. Sudden and deadly (over 50 people have died so far, thousands have been left homeless [RUS]), they have wiped out a number of villages, leaving nothing behind. While regional city forums have been coordinating firefighting efforts since late July, Moscow bloggers reacted only with copy-pasting of pictures of the fires.

On July 29, however, it became obvious that the disaster was nationwide, and it was then that the coordination of help started. LJ community pozar_ru [RUS] was launched. Volunteers began to publish reports of fires approaching villages, calls for help and offers of aid. Several bloggers, especially o_liska, i_chersky and doctor_liza , took initiative of coordinating volunteers.

On July 31, RuNet Echo's co-editor Gregory Asmolov wrote on his blog [RUS] that in times like these the “Ushahidi system” could become helpful in bridging volunteers and victims of the wildfires. On the same day, Marina Litvinovich asked [RUS] if there were any volunteers to implement Ushahidi. Gregory wrote to me, asking if we could do it. My initial reaction was, “No, it would take us at least a month to start it.” Then, on Sunday afternoon, after realizing that Ushahidi was easily installable, I wrote to Gregory: “Why not? Let's try.”

It took me one day to register a domain “russian-fires.ru,” install the Ushahidi package and get things running. On Monday, I published a post at Habrahabr [RUS], a Russian IT-community website, inviting administrators, designers, moderators and everyone who could help to join in. Right after the announcement, I received dozens of offers of help – both with the moderation and with technical support (about a hundred help offers so far). The post itself received 84 comments. Bloggers were re-posting and asking others to re-post [RUS] the link to the site.

Teafortwo wrote [RUS]:

Проснитесь! Людям нужна помощь. Россия горит и только всем миром можно потушить пожар. Не спите! Кому-то именно в эту секунду нужна Ваша помошь!

Wake up! People need help. Russia is burning and only together we can extinguish this fire. Don't sleep. Someone needs your help this very second!

Users were invited to upload reports (following the form available here) and map fires, smoke, calls for help, offers of help, and report aid centers (37 categories were created). The reports were made in different forms. For example, Vladimir from Stockholm wrote [RUS]:

Я сам москвич, но давно не живу в России – есть желание помочь соотечественникам деньгами – ибо прочие способы недоступны.
Предоставьте, пожалуйста, валютные реквизиты для перечислений.

I'm a Muscovite, but for a long time I don't live in Russia – I'm willing to help my compatriots with money – because all other means of help are unavailable. Please provide me with details for a bank transfer.

And here is a report from the village of Borkovka[RUS], which had burned down:

Люди спасались бегством налегке, взяв с собой только документы. Не было не одного автобуса, кому посчастливилось впрыгивали в автомобили, кому нет, бежали пешком. Положение сейчас самое тяжелое у бабушек и малограмотных людей, они в основном приютились у несгоревших соседей. Регистрация на помощь организована в Лазурном, до которого надо добраться. Люди не понимают, что им надо ехать и где-то регистрироваться на помощь. Молодежи легче, они понимают, как действовать, а бабушки просто беспомощны. Есть категории людей, которые нуждаются в поддержке, есть семьи с маленькими грудничками, которым помощь в 10 тыс руб от государства сейчас мало поможет.
В общем у людей не осталось ничего , кроме паспорта

People were fleeing with little luggage, only with documents. There was not a single bus, the lucky ones were jumping into cars, others had to run by foot. Currently, the worst situation is with the elderly women and people with little education, most of them are hosted by their neighbours whose houses didn't burn down. Registration for help is organized in Lazurny, a village to which one should get first somehow. People don't understand that they have to go somewhere and to register in order to get help. Young people understand what to do, but elderly women are helpless. There are categories of people who need support, there are families with little babies, and the government's help – 10,000 roubles [about $300] won't help a lot. People have nothing left except for their IDs.

With support also came popularity. Within a week, the site has received about 101,000 unique visitors and about 262,000 page views. At the same time, the site has received about 614 reports, with about 50 reports being added each day.

Due to the overload of the platform we had to find better hosting. This was the first lesson: people who want to install Ushahidi should seriously consider finding a powerful server to host the platform. In times of crisis, when there's an overload of information combined with the lack of truly helpful information, Ushahidi systems will be in great demand. Hence, overloads are quite possible.

As Anna Vrazhina, a RuNet observer at Lenta.runoted [RUS]:

Историю проекта “Карта помощи“, запущенного 2 августа, вообще стоило бы внести в учебники по Веб 2.0, если бы таковые существовали в природе.

The story of the “Help Map” project, which was launched on August 2, should be included in Web 2.0 textbooks, if any [such textbooks] existed.

By the end of the first day, “Help Map” team [RUS] (the title proposed by one of the commenters instead of the “Russian Fires,” the initial name) grew from two persons (Gregory Asmolov and myself) to nearly 20 (and a lot more now), some of whom were journalists, while others were web administrators, web programmers and moderators from various places in Russia. I didn't have time for security or background checks – I was giving access to our admin panel and FTP access to everyone who asked for it. And it worked – none of the people who offered help did any wrong to the website. Another conclusion to be made: trust is crucial when starting an Ushahidi-based system (or any crowdsourcing project) from scratch.

Although the initial installation was pretty easy, technical problems did arise later. Most of them had to do with internationalization and localization. Ushahidi is a great platform, but non-Latin implementations of it still need a lot of work. Part of the text had been encoded by Gregory Asmolov for the Kyrgyzstan election project [RUS]. Another unfortunate problem was Ushahidi's poor documentation and community support [EN]. Another lesson: for now, those who implement Ushahidi should be prepared to rely on themselves only.

Technical help is a weak point in the platform. It can be solved easily, however, but joint effort is needed. Everyone can help by simply supporting the community forum, granting organizations – by funding plugin design and hosting, mobile and Internet providers – by offering Ushahidi-ready hosting plans.

As an active participant of the events, I witnessed a genuine citizen and media interest in our project. Various newspapers covered Russian-fires.ru, while Yandex, Russia's most popular search engine, added markers from our map to their pozhar.yandex.ru portal, bringing more publicity to our project. A Russian hosting company offered us powerful hosting, and an SMS-portal provided us with their free service.

As the team of “virtual firefighters” grew bigger, Gregory Asmolov came up with an idea of creating a coordination center, arguing that it would give a new impulse to the site and to the whole mission of coordinating volunteer efforts. Anastasiya Severina, Gregory's friend, took the responsibility of setting up the “Help Map” headquarters in her own apartment. Responsibilities of the Ushahidi moderators include not only moderation work of approving messages, but also the validation of messages. In order to validate messages efficiently, one needs to contact people who leave reports at the site. Conclusion: the online part of Ushahidi is only a tip of the iceberg, a lot of work has to be done offline.

To draw a bottom line, the secret of such fast online popularity is that the project has filled the coordination gap and satisfied the demand for information. A lot of people expected such a project to come from the government. Bablopobeditzlo wrote [RUS]:

А в МЧС такой проект [...] никто не догадался создать?

And why didn't the Ministry of the Emergencies come up with such a project?

Gregory Asmolov, also commented on his blog [RUS] on the role of Ushahidi as a civil society tool, revealing the society's potential for solidarity and self-help:

Пожары в России показывают что в Российском обществе заложен большой потенциал взаимопомощи. Как мне кажется, это потенциал обострен еще тем, что многие россияне осознают что власть не дееспособна, и в этой ситуации, единственное решение это брать ситуацию в свои руки. Однако, потенциал взаимопомощи – это здорово, но чтобы взаимопомощь была эффективной нужны механизмы, которые позволят ей таковой быть. И именно в этом стратегическая роль Ушахиди. По сути , Ушахиди, выступает в данном контексте как институт гражданского общества. Это первые шаги к реальности в которой общество формирует альтернативные власти механизмы и институты, чтобы заполнять вакуум на месте государственных структур.

Wildfires in Russia show that there's a great potential for mutual aid in the Russian society. It seems to me that this potential is even stronger because many Russians realize that the government is incapable of functioning, and the only option in this situation is to act independently. However, while the potential for mutual aid is great, to make this mutual aid effective, mechanisms are needed in order to make it function. And that's the strategic role of Ushahidi. As a matter of a fact, Ushahidi becomes in this context a civil society institution. These are the first steps to the reality in which the public forms alternative mechanisms and institutions, in order to fill the vacuum of government structures.

“Help Map” is the first implementation of “Ushahidi” in Russia. And, hopefully, not the last one. We hope that following the success of the “Help Map” project, the system would be used by other volunteers in Russia. In the country this huge, map-based coordination is of great importance.

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