As India reels from a massive uptick in coronavirus cases, pushing its public health infrastructure to its limit, critical public information about things like vacant hospital beds, oxygen supplies, plasma donors, antiviral medication remdesivir, and even food delivery for quarantined people remains scant.
While some local authorities update data on their websites about bed availability, this data is often delivered through low-quality PDFs difficult for frantic relatives of patients to search online. The state’s failure to effectively share life-saving information has created an information gap, one that is now being filled by digital citizen-led initiatives. Online resources, such as volunteer-run Google Sheets and apps, have become crucial sources of life-saving information. On Twitter, posts sharing critical Covid-19 resources are retweeted thousands of times within hours, while users rush to apps with any hope of a solution.
Covid Resources is an online app that makes navigating statewide contact information for individuals who can provide medicine, oxygen, food, and beds easy and accessible for anyone who accesses it. It was created by 35-year-old freelance business consultant Amit Sarda, who watched last week as the alarming shortage of supplies and cries for help unfolded on social media in Pune, a city in Maharashtra, the state with the highest rates of cases and deaths this month. One of Sarda’s clients, an entrepreneur working in the perfume industry, reached out to him asking if there was a better way to organize information about oxygen supplies and plasma donors — anything other than scrolling through the disorganized Google Sheets or Twitter threads that are flooding Indian timelines. “You must have seen the last five to six days on Twitter. It’s just been people asking for help or sending help trying to find oxygen and medicine,” said Manan Gandhi, who connected with Sarda last Sunday.
That evening, Sarda mocked up a web app in under two hours, using a tool called Glide, which lets anyone build an app from Google Sheets. Gandhi gathered a team of volunteers who began updating the app with contact information on life-saving drug suppliers, vacant beds, oxygen, and plasma supplies that can be procured in different cities. Since April 18, when Covid Resources went live, volunteers have added over 650 contacts across 40 Indian cities. Sarda hasn’t yet added analytics to gather user data on session times or the number of calls placed through the app, but his partner Gandhi said hundreds of people have turned to the app.
These Indian initiatives are just the latest crowdsourced efforts to provide resources data around the world. In New York, a software engineer working for Airbnb created TurboVax, a Twitter handle that publishes real-time information on vaccine availability in the state, after struggling to make a vaccine appointment for his mother.
As cases grew from alarming to catastrophic levels in India over the last month, online crowdsourcing has become a critical tool — and the difference between life and death for some. Curated lists of distributors who sell Tocilizumab, a drug used in Covid-19 treatment that has been in short supply, are being shared hundreds of times over on apps like WhatsApp. The desperation is unprecedented, and the shortage of life-saving resources like oxygen is forcing Indians to cut out hospitals and middlemen and purchase oxygen cylinders from wholesalers directly. Some hospitals are even being forced to source oxygen supplies from the black market.
Social media, and especially Twitter, has become a help line for critical coordination, breaking away from the traditional information structures of the government. In the last two weeks, Indian Twitter has been flooded with plasma donor requests. Instagram and WhatsApp have gone from a place to share silly memes to a bulletin board of public service announcements, reshares of individual requests for family members, and frantic searches for ICU beds, oxygen, and antiviral drugs like remdesivir.
Groups like Covid Citizen Action Group, a medical help collective, have emerged as pivotal sources of information, curated and updated by volunteers. “Volunteer with this group to help match needs of #COVIDEmergency patients to availability of different resources,” reads an Instagram post about the initiative. Fridays For Future India is another citizen collective curating a nationwide repository that’s updated every 15 minutes.
“It’s given me so much hope to see the way people have rallied together to help each other out. And I personally know about five people now who’ve been helped by this,” said Nikhil Taneja, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur, on the ways that crowdsourced data has helped Indians facing supply shortages. “So yes, definitely, it’s working.”
But more and easier access to information doesn’t always solve a real resource crunch on the ground. As one volunteer from Covid Citizen Action Group noted on her Instagram page, “beds run out in 20 minutes,” and their online resources have to be constantly updated. And verifying the accuracy of the resources can be difficult, especially when volunteers are working to share information quickly. Gandhi of Covid Resources says they’re upfront with their inability to verify the information they share on their app. “We clearly mentioned on the app when you open that it’s not verifiable,” he explained.
But individual, volunteer-led coordination on Twitter can only do so much to substitute structured government action. The sudden surge in cases was spurred in part by authorities allowing for group gatherings earlier in the year. In February, the government announced elections in five states, lifting restrictions for massive election rallies, and, on top of that, allowed large gatherings for the Hindu religious festival Kumbh Mela.
Gandhi said that, despite his best efforts to include leads on resources like oxygen, antiviral medicine, and beds on his application, he still feels helpless. “All of the resources are running out too quickly,” he said.