A blog with an ungainly name—The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami, or SEA-EAT—has emerged as the latest example of netizens' ability to form fast volunteer organizations.
The blog was started by Peter Griffin, a writer and blogger located in Bombay, India, soon after the tsunamis hit on Sunday.
"Peter though it up," said Rohit Gupta, one of three bloggers in Bombay running SEA-EAT. "His idea was that there has to be a clearinghouse of aid and information for the tsunami victims. There was no such resources at this time."
"The Dead Are Being Buried With Extreme Haste And Little Ceremony"
The three-day old blog has clocked 100,000 site visits as of Wednesday, noon PST. That's an extraordinarily high number; 1,000 page views in a single day is pretty good for most blogs.
The blog is open to anyone who wants to contribute, with over 50 people now providing content from all over south-east Asia.
A separate blog, ChienSansFrontiers is posting firsthand accounts from disaster areas, sent from the scene at hard-hit Sri Lanka via SMS, or cell-phone instant messaging.
"We're getting out information that traditional media has not access to," Gupta said. "Certain areas have been cordoned off to traditional media by the Tamil Tigers," or Sri Lanka police.
SEA-EAT provides information on where to send donations in cash or goods, volunteer, and information about the ongoing disaster. Recent posts include information about a new, dedicated web site set up by the Sri Lanka tourist board; hotline numbers to find missing people from India, the Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Thailand; a 24-hour helpline for missing persons from South Africa; and information on how Americans and Canadians can send assistance to Indonesia.
Several hundred SEA-EAT bloggers are sorting through the information on the blog and pouring it into a wiki on the Wikinews server.
In addition to contributors, SEA-EAT has people who function as editors. They're called "janitors" and "monitors." "The janitors are cleaning up the trash, and the monitors are watching," said Gupta. Janitors watch for redundant posts and duplicate information, monitors make sure people don't deface the blog. The system is self-organizing, people who want to contribute decide what role they want to play, and organize themselves to work in round-the-clock shifts; I spoke to at 2 am his time in Bombay; he was working the night shift.
Three people are overseeing the blog: founder Griffin and co-founders Gupta and blogger and marketing consultant Dina Mehta. They coordinate via cell phones, Instant Messenger conference room, e-mail and YahooGroups.
The organizers selected BlogSpot to host the blog because it was what they knew, said Gupta. Both he and Griffin re experienced BlogSpot users. Gupta runs five blogs, and Griffin runs three. Choosing BlogSpot made it easy to recruit contributors, because many people are already familiar with the Blogger software used on BlogSpot, and already have BlogSpot accounts that they can use to get started right away.
"What we did not expect is the kind of traffic we're getting," Gupta said. Their site meter stopped at 100,000 visitors, and the SEA-EAT organizers are concerned about going over their bandwidth allocation. Other bloggers have volunteered to host the blog, should it outgrow BlogSpot. The SEA-EAT organizers have been attempting to contact Google to coordinate their blogging efforts, but have been unable to contact anyone, although the Blogger homepage has a link to SEA-EAT, indicating that Google is aware of their existence, Gupta said.
In retrospect, blogging presented advantages and disadvantages, Gupta said. A blog presents information in reverse-chronological order, with the newest information at the top. A wiki can be better organized, more like a conventional web site, making information easier to read and find.
On the other hand, blogs give credit to individual contributors, whereas wikis are entirely anonymous, Gupta said.
"In the wiki, individual contributors are invisible most of the time," Gupta said. "Showing that you're contributing is a huge motivation factor in a blog. A natural step for us is to move onto a wiki, but I don't think that we could have come as far as we did on a wiki."
Mehta wrote on the WorldChanging blog on Tuesday: "On hindsight I wish we had set up the SEA-EAT (South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami) blog on a wiki instead. It was such a quick and spontaneous decision that we just wanted to get on with building the resources rather than fuss about the platform."
She notes that the blogging format can make it hard to find information, As new entries come in, older entries scroll off the bottom of the page. Blogger doesn't even allow posts to be organized into categories.
She added, "As a result of tremendous traffic, requests for all sorts of things are pouring in. We've had requests to allow translations into different languages, requests to mirror the blog onto other pages, requests to set up pages for people who are looking for their loved ones gone missing.... This only reinforces my belief that a wiki might have been a much better medium - not only would these pages be separate yet part of a faceted collection and linked to each other, it might have been much easier for someone to navigate and jump in and post as well. Or to open a new page that they felt was relevant without checking back with admin. Moreover, the layers we might have wanted would be so easy to build. And few entry barriers about asking whether they could post or not. Owned by all - a true community."
In the comments thread to that post, a person signing their name as "Taran" suggests the Drupal content management system.
Gupta, 28, is a freelance writer who studied chemical engineering in college, who says he writes about a range of subjects from politics to science. Gupta, Mehta and Griffin first met on the Internet, through their blogs, but then met in person later on. There are all located in Bombay.