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Russia: Connecting Neighbors, Saving Lives

In the summer of 2010, when peat fires spread across Russia, choking and suffocating villages, Internet activists got organized. While the Russian government response was slow and piecemeal, bloggers responded by quickly launching the site Russian-Fires [ru], which allowed Internet users in small towns to relay information about where fires were still burning and what supplies were needed.

The site was immensely popular, at one point experiencing upto 17,000 unique visitors a day.

When the crisis was over, the bloggers behind the project – Anastasia Severina, Alexey Sidorenko, Lev Zvyagintsev, Valery Ilyichev, and Gregory Asmolov – noticed that the website was still buzzing with activity. Users continued to send messages about other problems and needs in their towns.

“People saw that it was an effective platform for sending help when and where it was needed,” says Severina.

Website "Virtual Alarm" maps alerts for help and need, and then coordinates locals to respond.

Website "Virtual Alarm" maps alerts for help and need, and then coordinates locals to respond.

Connecting people in new ways

Inspired by the success of Russian-Fires [ru], the bloggers developed a new site – Rynda.org (Virtual Alarm) – which currently consists of three maps: a “General Map”, a “Fire Map”, and a “Blood Donation” map.

The locations of people who have sent requests are indicated in red, while offers to help are in green. Severina says they have tried to make the site as simple as possible, so that people, “who have no idea how to operate a computer can go to the page and see two buttons: ‘I need help’ or ‘I want to help.’”

The site team in Moscow does not physically transport or receive goods. Instead, Virtual Alarm connects people who live in the same city, with those who have what they need.

“Let’s say a mother needs supplies, like clothing for her children. It makes no sense to send clothes from an NGO in Moscow to Vladivostok,” Severina explains. Instead, alerts for help or need are marked on a map, and people registered as willing to help are notified of new requests via email.

After about two weeks, they follow up on any outstanding alerts to make sure someone has responded to the call for help.

Mapping blood donors

The newest map on Virtual Alarm charts blood donation and blood banks throughout Russia. The map marks donation centers, and also connects those who need blood donations with donors of the same blood type nearby. Registered users can also leave comments about their experience donating blood, which Severina hopes will help show people how easy and necessary it is to donate blood at least once a year.

A woman donates blood

An image from Russian ministry of health site encouraging citizens to donate blood.

According to 2010 statistics [ru], only 13 out of every 1,000 people in Russia donate blood every year, in comparison with rates 3-4 times as high in Europe and the United States. The Russian Ministry of Health and Social Development say they need to reach a rate of at least 25 out of 1,000 people [ru] in order for hospitals and clinics to function adequately.

The ministry has recently launched a hotline number and website called “I'm a donor” (Yadonor.ru) to inform the public and make blood donation easier.

In the near future, Rynda hopes to partner with local businesses in order to offer registered users small rewards – like discounts or movies tickets – as a thank you for volunteering.

As far as the future uses of the map, Severina says, “If, God forbid, something should happen, and some new crisis should arise, we would make a new map and connect people.”

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