Sunday, December 25, 2005

How my life changed

I have been wanting to write about my experience with the SEA-EAT for a year now but never had the chance. Now that we are observing the Remembrance Week, I thought it would be fitting to write about it. So here it goes (some details gleaned from emails and chats from an year ago):

December 26. 2004 was just another Sunday morning when I woke up and as internet-addictive as I am, I checked the news as the first thing in the morning and I saw that there was a major earthquake followed by a Tsunami in Indian Ocean. First thought that came to my mind was about my parents. As I hastily went downstairs to wake up my roommates, I tried in vain to call my parents in Tamil Nadu. Though they lived inland, they told me that they are going to visit a Temple which is near the beach. So I was worried. I couldn't get through to them. My roommates checked with their parents and they were okay. I finally got through to my parents' mobile as they were on their way back from the temple in southern Tamil Nadu. They were unaware of neither the earthquake nor the Tsunami but they said the sea water was of different color when they were there a while ago. Just when we were talking, they could see police diverting traffic away from the direction towards the beach towns.

Having assured that my parents were safe (even though a few hours here and there would have made that difficult), I was desparately looking for ways to help. I was searching the internet for details -- what coastal towns were affected, who were co-ordinating the rescue efforts as the US TV Media coverage was pathetic initially. Then I literally stumbled upon SEA-EAT. At that early time, it was just Peter and Sunil Nair. So I dropped them an email:

Hello Guys,

I appreciate your efforts on putting together It has been a great source of information. I would like to volunteer myself in any way I can to help your efforts. I run a blog myself at and I can help you with your blog.

I live in New Jersey, US and I am originally from Madurai, TN.

Please let me know if I can be of any help.

That was the beginning of what would be a life changing event for me personally. Peter readily added me as a volunteer and I immediately got to the task of blogging any and every information I could find. Having hailed from the affected areas (Tamil Nadu) in India, I was able to use my knowledge of local news sources (Tamil newspapers, journalist friends, other friends) to my advantage. At the time when I started blogging, I din't and couldn't imagine how big this blog would eventually become. I thought of it as a mere method to quench my thirst to help people in need.

The effort initially was to get information from various news sources (even small obscure sources) onto one site for everyone to read, mainly information about relief agencies, helpline numbers and volunteer needs. We always linked to the original source and credited the person who passed on the information. The list of volunteers grew from a handful few to hundreds and eventually thousands. Initially, a very simple stop-and-go protocol was used for co-ordination (instances like this from Peter):

Please nobody post forthe next ten minutes. Am trying to fix the template.

Rohit, this is post our phone call. Did a refresh and it went back to
the that funny curvy template.

It was amazing to see a group of complete strangers (I have never met any of the volunteers even until now) from all over the world working so well together literally self organising themselves to work efficiently and effectively. The beauty of it was the sense of urgency everyone had. Decisions were taken in minutes not hours. Roles were just assumed not assigned. Things got done in hours not days. Offers to shoulder responsibility was always instantaneous. Like this one from Saurav:

I can help out as a monitor or janitor or whatever else for the next few hours. whoever needs relief, hit me back and let me know what you need help with.

Janitor, Monitor were the monikers coined by our captain, Peter to indicate the various roles that have been designated on the blog. Since I had been one of the early blogger to join the effort, I took on some of the co-ordination responsibilities. And boy, it was a task I would never forget in my life. I had literally tens of chat windows open in my tiny laptop at my home. Remember I still have to "do" work at my office. But thanks to my understanding boss, I was spending 24 hours of my time in this effort. I remember very well the new years eve when a bunch of friends asked me to join them to go to NYC for a night out of celebration. I had to politely turn them down so that I can spend time at the blog. Since we were in the process of revamping the template, I dint want to leave my computer. Like others, I ignored everything - food, chores, phone calls -- everything became trivial. Thanks to my roommates for the kind help in taking over some things so that I could concentrate on the blog completely.

Back to the blog, we were facing a lot of navigational issues with having just one blog with that being constanly updated. So we decided to come up with 'Sublogs' (I think we coined that word). I don't remember if it was Neha or Paola who came up with that idea but it was quickly adopted. We quickly categorized into Tsunami Missing, Tsunami Updates, Help Needed, Help Offered sublogs. People were assigned immediately to man these sublogs. It was efficiency at its best. I have never seen or worked with a group of people who were so dedicated, so mindful of the ultimate goals, so hard working. Constantin then created a YahooGroup for all the volunteers to keep in touch with each other. Pim pitched in by sponsoring us the Picosearch account that would allow us to search the blog for any content.

Along with my co-ordination and admin responsiblities, I was handling the incoming volunteers and assigning them to the various tasks that were available at that time. And it was just mind boggling the number of emails and volunteer offers via the blog that we received from people all over the world offering all sorts of help, like this one offer from Priya Prakash of BBC UK who offered to help us by creating a WAP version of our site so that people can view it from a mobile.

Ofcourse not everything went as well as it should have been. There was this major episode of Wikinews where there were quite a number of issues to be dealt with. As the blog grew in size and information, it became very difficult for people to find the information they were looking for as a blog is more of a collection of tidbits in a chronological order. So someone came up with the idea of Wiki. It sounded perfect as it would enable everyone to contribute to the wiki in the meanwhile allowing people to find the relevant information they are looking for in a easy-to-navigate website. So, we started off with creating an article at which is a sister arm of Wikipedia. Though it started out well, we were first hit with the Wikinews outage which we first thought of because of the load and later turned out to be a database glitch. Then we were told by the Wikinews admins that the site is not the right place for a content like this because of their NPOV policy and the nature of the content we were creating was not compliant. After a couple of days of back-and-forth discussions with their admins, we decided that it was time for us to find our own Wiki. Dina was so generous in creating the domain and thus the TsunamiHelp Wiki was born. A separate wiki team was at work day and night porting contents from the blog to the Wiki and made a tremendous improvement in just a matter of few hours.

I was involved in most of these conflict resolution sessions with the Wikinews admins and I remember very well an IRC chat in which Dina and I lodged a lone battle with their admins. I could understand their point of view but they failed to understand that what we were doing was saving lives.

I also remember dealing with a lot of personal conflicts which was inevitable in a group with such diversity. It was either by accident or by pure luck, I kinda became the personal conflict resolver of choice :). And to be honest, I learnt a lot from that experience on how to deal with people and how just listening to their grievances makes a difference.

There were so many instances of cool technologies being used - A Missing Persons Flickr Page, TsunamiHelp Wiki, WAP Site for easy access, numerous versions of RSS-like feeds, an amazing template. Talking about template, kudos to Megha for a job well done on the template. I remember sitting with her when we unveiled the new template. It was about 4 AM in the morning and I was all but drained out. Megha was working very hard at the template. When she came on the chat, I said to her "I am tired, let's do the template switch tomorrow". She said "No, the templates are ready, why don't you stay with me and we'll publish the templates right now". I reluctantly said "OK, lemme see the new templates". Then I saw the templates, WOW -- that's what was all I needed to stay up until all the templates were updated. Templates were awesome and very well organized. I remember we nervously republishing the blog again and again to make sure that there are no issues. Remember, all this was happening while we had about 2000 visitors per hour. You can imagine the traffic load it was having on the site and the blogger interface.

I also got to do my very first Radio interview with WCNJ (89.3FM) Indian Radio Station in NJ and a couple of other radio stations in Texas. I also gave multitude of interviews to various media outlets - Guardian, BBC News, The Hindu to name a few. Since I was the one available, I was named the media contact for the US. There were so many people who we are grateful to -- those helped us get unlimited bandwidth (Google), those who got us coverage (thousands of blogs - noteably BoingBoing) and main stream media (Guardian was the one of the first). I was no journalist nor the one who has done this before but given the circumstances, I did these interviews somehow and in some cases, they invited me again for the anniversary this month.

We couldn't continue at the pace we were at for a long time. Soon, I drained out. I had to stay away from this for a day or two to get myself together again. It took me a while to get "back" to my normal life. But all the while, I was constantly involved with the relief efforts which were ongoing back at my home state and country.

The efforts became much more organized as days and weeks went by. People started focusing elsewhere. But I remember few people specifically told me to contact them when I couldn't find any more volunteers because they knew as time goes by people tend to forget things. And sure enough, when called upon, they pitched in whenever they can.

We had successfully evolved a Online Relief Co-ordination model that has since been used very effectively in various relief efforts, notably in KatrinaHelp, RitaHelp, QuakeHelp, MumbaiHelp etc. I have been involved in some of these efforts albeit at a reduced level of participation. We have also mobilised into a somewhat organized group under WorldWideHelp. University students researched our blog to find out how it all happened and to see if they can make this model a research paper for major relief agenices to use when needed.

Looking back, I cannot think of any other life altering incident that had as much effect on me as this one has been. I never knew the power of humanity that existed in people all over the world until this incident. I made so many friends from this effort and I have continued to stay involved with the various relief efforts associated with various disasters around the world, but this was the one that ignited the flame in my heart. I would always remember the New Years Eve 2005 as the one where I stayed all night using a tiny laptop in my New Jersey apartment to maybe help save some life in a remote village in Indonesia or Thailand. I posted this message on the blog on the stroke of midnight here in the US east coast, holding back tears.

I would like to thank my fellow volunteers - Peter Griffin, Dina Mehta, Rohit Gupta, Constantin Basturea, Megha Murthy, Paola Di Maio, Neha Vishwanathan, Angelo Embuldeniya, Pim Techamuanvivit, Suhit Anantula, Rudi Cilibrasi, Rob Kline, Andy Carvin, Nancy Bohrer, Sanjay Sananayake, Tony Piper, Nandini Chopra, Priya Prakash, Karen Bouman, Prasanth Reddy, Santos, Sridhar Mahadevan, Sarang Deo, Krishna, Anna Lisa Cruz, Vijaya Moorthy, Vishal Kudchadkar, Anand Chopda, Ram Dhan Yadav, Taran Rampersad, Saurav Sarkar, Ganesh, Sunil Nair, Prema, Balaji Bondili Singh, Daryl Sng, Samit Basu, Annie , Kartik Talamadupula, Dilip D' Souza and many more with whom I interacted and worked with for their motivation during the SEA-EAT days and their continuing friendship.


  1. big hug Bala. i share all of your sentiments - it changed my life too.

  2. What a time it was and what a time it was!

    Changed us all, didn't it?


  3. Seems like a lifetime ago, and sadly for many people - it has been. I've been involved with other things before and after, with the same and different people... it's safe to say that I learned a lot about and from people during the experience. All things considered, it's been a tough year dealing with disasters at many different levels. In some ways, the tsunami set the tone.

    The way I see it... a lot of good came out of the SEA EAT. However, I must point out that what I did with SEA EAT, and what I did related to the tsunami, were distinctly separate things - and though I appreciate the mention, I do not feel that my name belongs in an association with the SEA EAT blog. My priorities were different; communication with the ground - and in that I have seen consistent failures throughout 2005, and a seeming lack of interest by people until the disaster shows up. Maybe 2006 will be different, though I must admit I've become somewhat jaded when it comes to how actual disaster communication is implemented - and the obvious ways it could be used to better communicate to a larger cooperative working team - even a weblog.

    And yet I am glad that you mentioned me, because it reminded me of how pleasant it was to work with you.

    Let's hope things like that don't happen often, and that goodwill will not be a knee-jerk response, but something done consistently throughout the survival of mankind. It's a big planet, and it's trying to find a balance. Hopefully, we'll be on the other side of that balance.

  4. Bala... Thank you for penning this all down. It really re-affirms my faith in communities..

  5. Bala thanks for the kickstart!

    I think it was what i saw at SEA EAT, the outpour of information that got me going with pushing Map Action for the tsunami sat-maps in Sri Lanka which at the time was under the covers, and having to connect to someone at SEAEAT, i think it was Bala who led me on to CB... and the rest of the SEAEAT team.

    the entire SEAEAT (Dina doesn't like the name yet - we know) experience played into many aid agencies' and NGO's hands, I haven't done much documenting on this yet, I hope to do so though, bu when i volunteered during the tsunami in Sri Lanka with VolunteerSriLanka, for example, we practically used the seaeat for sourcing volunteers and pulling up the contact info for those who needed help, and although the NGO i was working with was solely responsible for tsunami volunteer management, we ran they extra mile, scoured the sea eat blogs and wiki and whatever info that was useful, we passed it on to other agencies. On example would be when a marine called our hotline to inquire if we had any available choppers or air transport, it was much quicker and effective for us to scan the seaeat help offered blog than go about the red tape of requesting for a flight or whatever.

    Another thing, i believe the seaeat experience thought us that really helped out in handling other disasters was 'doing work-arounds' for red-tape, in short... i Don't do red-tape anymore... it's helped me wrk out on a personal level as well as that of a collective one.

    SEAEAT, really helped me with the whole month of Katrina outreach, katrina was pretty much emotional, maybe cos its a different region, I'm hoping to detail on my blog soon, the seaeat and how it led to everyone coming together for all the other disasters that hit during the rest of 2005.

    Hoping the seaeat and other folks who are shaping into the world wide help group will keep joining hands in future disasters as well :)

  6. Dina,

    A big hug to you too.


    yes, it sure did. I think it was just magical -- those moments when things just happened.


    I understand and share your concerns regarding the lack of interest in establishing a simple and basic communication schema before disaster strikes -- like a SMS based emergency communication pool. I am wondering if its because nobody has proposed these ideas formally to a standard setting body -- like IEEE, IETF etc. These standard bodies wield a good influence over the telecom industry and maybe that's what is needed to get the academia and the standard body experts involved to get this system in place. Just my $0.02.

    It was very pleasant to work with during the SEA-EAT days and please feel free to drop me an email if you need any help from me.


    I remember very well the first email that you sent us to get involved in SEA-EAT which I forwarded to CB. It was just heartwhelming to read your email:

    Hi there,

    Due to flight delays I'm stranded in the airport for the next couple
    of days until saturday (jan 8th) and i've got access to a laptop and
    an internet connection as well and can volunteer for 12-15hrs per day,
    about more than 40 hours in total until i reach sri lanka to help out
    with relief efforts.

    Please tell me what to do with regards to helping out online with the
    tsunami blog, wiki or anything else, i'm ready to do anything and i've
    got the technical expertise as well, may it be evaluating a system to
    posting messages and so forth.

    Looking forward to hearing from you soon,
    Angelo Embuldeniya.

    The relief work you did in the next few weeks was not something that can be done sitting in front of a computer. Hats of to you.

  7. Bala,

    I'll cut through the fluff as I usually do. How could one of those standards agencies take something seriously if the grassroots couldn't - in fact, when the SEA EAT couldn't?

    On top of that, the standards are already there. They just aren't implemented, as I have said ad nauseam this year... I'm writing my perspectives on 2005 right now, and it's pretty even handed - and to be even handed, sometimes one has to be heavy handed. I prefer the light touch, myself, and recognize that memory is selective.

  8. Taran,

    There wasn't an entity known as "The SEA-EAT" as far as I know :). It was merely a group of volunteers who were trying their best to facilitate relief information flow as much as possible.

    I understand your frustration on how it helps a person stuck beneath a wall, dying. It doesn't. With regard to ARC, I don't know what actually happened and why it wasn't put in action as it should have been. If you ask me, I would say it failed and would continue to fail because of the lack of awareness. The system is known to only among bloggers and they dont have much say on what and how things are used in the ground by relief workers and governments.

    Playing Devil's Advocate here, I would start asking these questions: What kinda standard proposals have you put out? You and I know that the system is needed and it works and it should be in place before the disaster but that's not enough. How many NGOs have you talked to? Have you proposed this to Red Cross, UN Relief agencies?

    A good example of a successful campaign is ICE. and it has now been widely adopted by most of the countries in the world.

    I would start looking at that as a start...

  9. OFFTOPIC -- kinda'

    WooHoo -- today i heard the voices of some SEAEAT folks (bumby,grumpy,jumpy,sleepy,angry,delicious voices!)! now that was amazing! If i may suggest - we should do some sorta' seaeat-katrina-quake list podcast roundup next year :)

    any takers?