How techies from Kerala, in India and abroad, rushed to rescue the flood-hit state4 min read . Updated: 22 Aug 2018, 01:38 PM IST
Thousands of software engineers from Kerala across the globe are now working round the clock to mitigate what could be Kerala's Katrina moment.
Thiruvananthapuram/Bengaluru: Alexy Joseph in Colorado, US, says he is just out of bed from a four-hour nap, after about 20 hours working voluntarily for running the website ‘keralarescue.in’, when this correspondent called him over the phone on Sunday night.
He is one of the thousands of software engineers from Kerala across the globe who are now working round the clock to mitigate what could be Kerala’s Katrina moment.
Kerala—one of India’s most literate, wealthy and at the same time a densely populated small state—is reeling under the century’s worst floods, after half a week long heavy rains. It has killed 370 people and displaced 1 million others so far, making it Kerala’s biggest tragedy ever since the state was formed in 1957.
At the peak of the crisis, the height of water levels went up to half the height of a coconut tree in some districts, as per local reports. Television reports showed even two storey houses submerged under water.
Kerala’s tech force was one of the firsts to respond to mitigate the crisis. “I studied in Kerala, my parents and relatives are all in Kerala. So this was something very close to me," says Joseph.
Within hours after the tragedy struck, the techies, volunteers from Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Kerala’s IT cell, came together on Slack, a communication platform, and build the entire tech node for ‘keralarescue.in’ to relay online calls for help to rescue operations offline—all without any funding.
By the time Joseph joined on Thursday, there were already hundreds of volunteers improving the website.
“People were coding like crazy. My friends also joined, most of them who had worked at the backend and frontend of websites. We saw a bunch of things that could be improved," he said.
Because it was pushed by the government itself, many rescue operators were using the website. More people realized that the website was being used, more requests came in, several of them from overseas Malayalees, who are known for their propensity to travel and prosper.
More popular it became, more coders joined the effort, some employees of even tech giants like Microsoft, Google, Uber, among others, according to Joseph.
By Saturday, the website grew so rapidly that they ran out of the free quota in Slack, limiting their efforts unless not moved into an expensive paid plan.
One would get an NGO approval to operate for free in Slack, but that usually takes time, a precious resource given the water levels were rising by seconds.
So the coders joined hands and reached out to Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, says Joseph, and he responded within a minute giving them a free upgrade.
By now, according to Joseph, some 1,585 coders are volunteering for the website, which received about 10 million requests, meaning that many people have used the website.
Kerala has been producing millions of engineers over the last three decades. Engineering, along with medicine, has been one of the most sought after higher education options in Kerala. Each year, about 54000 aspirants enroll for engineering courses, where at least half of the students have to pay only a subsidized fees, sometimes as lower as public colleges.
Parallel to this, a bunch of top Malayalee executives in global IT companies have also risen like a tide to raise relief-aid for Kerala’s reconstruction, which, Mint reported on Sunday, is expected to cost the already cash-strapped Kerala’s public purse at least ₹ 25,000 crore.
One such is Nissan Motor Co. Ltd’s Chief Information Officer Anthony Thomas, known as Tony among the local IT crowd, who has been camping in Thiruvananthapuram for about a week now.
“A team of top IT officials from Kerala are flexing their high level contacts in global IT companies to raise private donations to chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s Disaster Relief Funds," said Tony.
Also, the CMDRF website run by a public body, C-DIT, has been crashing several times. So top experts from IT majors who have their offices in Thiruvananthapuram—Nissan, UST Global, Oracle, among others and startups—are working closely with C-DIT to resolve performance issues of the website (www.donation.cmdrf.kerala.gov.in).
“For instance, on Sunday morning, we created a Whatsapp group (Relief Fund websites). By evening, we had created a mirror website for CMDRF, which can be used as back-up during crashes," said Robin Alex Panicker, a software engineer based in a startup co-working space called B-Hub in Thiruvananthapuram.
“We are looking to add several things—performance and reliability indicators attached to the collection, linking into e-commerce websites like Amazon, and resolve a lot of complications related to receive international contributions. There are institutional bottlenecks too, like companies can provide their CSR funds to only PM’s relief fund now," said Tony.
“My engineering head used to be the head of Hotstar, and he comes from Apple. The volumes they are handling is unimaginable, we are looking to use that talent to improve the website," he added.
On Sunday night, Tony is calling top executives at his previous employer Vodafone, to see if people can be traced in bulk by tracing their last available mobile tower location. “So if Navy gives them thousand numbers, within seconds they can do a scan and tell you, which was the last tower location of each person, increasing the chances of their tracing," he says.
Panicker is still wrapping up his work, and has to head to the secretariat to show his work on the mirror site in the morning.
Joseph is in no mood to sleep because, “we are trying to get the migration done to the new hosting part, it’s like you have a running train and you change the wheels."
“Malayalees cannot control a natural calamity. But they surely can control technology," says Tony.