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2021-07-23 09:17:31

China’s rescue efforts in the aftermath of the floods in central Henan province are being aided by state emergency teams as well as individuals and volunteer groups harnessing the power of technology in a critical hour.

From conventional online spreadsheets to mobile apps designed to help people with disabilities and flying WiFi routers, technology is being used to aid people caught in floods that have killed at least 51 people as of Friday.

Existing apps used for everyday needs such as ordering food and checking hospitality-related reviews — including Meituan, Ele.me, and Dianping — have also stepped in to offer assistance, providing lists of hotels and supermarkets that offer free services, including accommodation, in the affected areas for those in need.

“This is tech for the good,” one user wrote under a related hashtag, with others hailing the benevolent utilization of technology during disasters.

Sixth Tone sheds light on some of the tech tools being used to help Henan.

Cloud-Based Document Sharing Tools

Soon after the news of the disaster was reported Tuesday evening, 21-year-old Li Rui sprang into action. She mobilized her friends and created a cloud-based spreadsheet on Tencent Docs.

The document, made publicly available, aimed to deliver volunteer-verified information for rescuers and people in need — and it did just that.

The document — titled “Information on People to Be Rescued” — went viral on Chinese social media platforms, accumulating hundreds of thousands of shares. In the 24 hours after it was created, it had been viewed over 2.5 million times, and received over 20,000 updates.

“I saw a video of people stuck in cars, a person in a tree, and others holding hands to cross flooded areas, and thought what I could do to help,” Li from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics told state broadcaster China Central Television.

Several individuals and grassroots organizations are also using another cloud-based tool, Shimo, to crowdsource information on relief needs in Henan. In the wake of the disaster, Shimo said it will not charge rescue organizations on the ground for its premium version — an annual subscription costs 600 yuan ($90) and comes with encrypted services.

Apps to Aid People With Disabilities

Non-profit organizations such as the Henan-based Voice of Hand are offering emergency and rescue-related information in sign language across several apps.

Under the flood-dedicated hashtag on Weibo, sign language teacher Du Yinling has posted a video for people with hearing and speech impairments.

“Sign language users can use Voice of Hand, Yingnuo, and Diyu 7655 to connect with sign language interpreters who can help deliver rescue information to relief teams,” she wrote, adding, “Those with hearing loss but are able to speak can download Voibook.”

Voice of Hand, Yingnuo, Diyu 7655, and Voibook are just some of the mobile apps available to aid people with hearing and speech impairments. Voibook has attracted strategic investment from Chinese tech firm iFlytek, which is known for its voice-based products.

Unmanned WiFi Drone

Unmanned planes that serve as flying WiFi routers were deployed in the town of Mihe to provide a stable internet connection for residents and rescuers.

The Wing Loong-2H drone hovered over Mihe — administered by Gongji, which is one of the hardest-hit areas — for five hours Wednesday night and provided internet connectivity over an approximately 50-square-kilometer radius, domestic media reported.

The drone is powered by telecommunications giant China Mobile and developed by the aerospace and defense conglomerate Aviation Industry Corporation of China for emergency and disaster relief operations.

Tuesday’s floods have disrupted power and phone lines, as well as internet connectivity, in many parts of the province.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: People charge their phones at a store entrance in Zhengzhou, Hennan province, July 22, 2021. People Visual)