Volunteer team in India uses skills to identify missing people in tragic flood

Story of service • India • November 2013

Sunil_Raghavan.
Of his 12 years of experience
voluntarily participating in
IBM’s disaster response
efforts in India, Sunil
Raghavan says, “It’s about
being able to access and
leverage the wide range of
capabilities and people
across IBM that has probably
helped the most—the
achievements and recognition
belong to the team.”
In 2001, Sunil Raghavan, a member of the strategy team for IBM in Bangalore, India, was first introduced to disaster response as a result of an earthquake in western India. “I knew several people in the government and one thing led to another and I ended up coordinating the IBM response in the field,” he says.

Twelve years later and now with experience coordinating response in several disasters, Sunil started preparing for potentially involving IBM in relief assistance in the Uttarakhand floods. Rain had been falling across the state for days, causing massive flooding, missing people and loss of life. It looked like once again he would need to step into a volunteer role – one he does not necessarily cherish, but one he willingly accepts—helping to lead and coordinate disaster response and assistance for IBM in India.

A flood of rain, a flood of data

Despite June being the start of monsoon season, an estimated 100,000 tourists and pilgrims were in remote Uttarakhand near the Himalaya mountain range, visiting the area’s temples and shrines. They were prepared for rain, but not for the quantity that fell. From June 14 to June 17, over twelve inches of rain fell on Uttarakhand’s already fragile land and infrastructure—nearly 400% the normal rainfall for the area during a monsoon.

“In a day or two it was clear that the disaster was huge and the challenges immense,” Sunil recalls. Sunil’s manager, who agreed IBM had expertise to aid the relief effort, had IBM’s public sector and government programs’ teams contact the State Chief Minister's Office to offer pro-bono assistance. The offer was accepted.

In disaster relief efforts, large amounts of data are generated: names of victims and missing persons, inventories of food and medicine, volunteer organizations’ resources, and equipment distribution schedules. Often that data is redundant and unreliable—in short, the data is a mess.

“From experience we know there is going to be an overflow of information that needs to be managed,” says Sunil. “In addition, the difficult logistics in Uttarakhand would extend the intensity and duration of the challenge. We felt IBM could be useful in managing the data of missing people—we got instant buy-in with the senior official in charge of the missing persons’ cell.”

The choice was deliberate to focus on data for missing people. “Yes, there is something emotional and visceral about physically rescuing people or handing out relief supplies—IBM volunteers do that with no hesitation,” said Sunil. “But in this situation, we were going to be most essential in the lives of those affected by using our know-how in data analysis.”

Rapid response, talented team of volunteers

Working quickly, Sunil tapped his network of people who provided disaster relief in the past, and teamed with IBM communications to post an appeal in an internal forum. “The response was tremendous,” he says. Between 150 and 200 IBMers offered to help—the corporate citizenship team cataloged responses and volunteers were selected based on specific skills and the ability to travel.

On June 24, soon after putting the process in motion and on the arrival date officials had requested, two members of Sunil’s volunteer team landed amid the chaotic situation. Ravi Krishnan and Ashish Gautam had worked with Sunil on earlier disasters. Ravi has an extensive range of technical skills and Ashish a deep understanding of effectively working with government ministries. The two experts formed the advance team, meeting with officials in the impacted area and establishing IBM’s role assisting in what was called the “missing people cell.”

As the volume of data grew, the team quickly ramped up. Sunil and other IBM volunteers arrived in Dehradun a few days later to begin sifting data in order to identify missing people. Eventually, 15 IBM volunteers would rotate in and out of Dehradun working with the government teams, while another 16 IBMers supported the effort remotely, including at IBM’s software lab in Bangalore. “We have always done such work as a team, and the achievements and recognition belong to the team,” Sunil says.

Skill and innovation that matter

The team’s focus was to create as accurate a list as possible of missing people to support a more systematic search for survivors—and so authorities would have a tally on which to base compensation for the families of those missing and presumed dead. However, the source information was riddled with duplicates. Concerned families would unknowingly register missing people multiple times, using differently spelled names or different addresses. “There were significant overlaps,” says Sunil. “At one point we got over 20,000 records from one database, and after de-duplication, we found there were actually only 7,000 unique names.”

In addition to traditional reporting methods, cell phone data was used to help determine if someone was in the flood zone. With government support, mobile call data was requested from cell phone companies in the region—many of them IBM clients. The complexities were numerous, but with information compiled into a single database, and using IBM data analysis tools, the team was able to identify phones that may have gone inactive during the disaster.

Ultimately, however, there were too many potential flaws in the cell data to reliably give information to families about missing individuals. Sunil says, “We tried something innovative that could really matter one day—we’ll learn from the experience and be even more prepared next time.”

The work of the IBM team came to a close after five weeks of data clean-up, compilation, analysis and reporting. The final data was moved into repositories for longer term retention.

In mid-September, 2013, Indian officials reported 4,120 people were still missing.

Essential values in practice

Sunil says he remembers many sad stories from the event—families crowding the missing people cell looking for information, survivors trying to locate friends, others learning loved ones had perished.

Yet, this is work Sunil wants to do. “It is a great privilege to represent IBM in these situations—it’s vital that we share our expertise to help others when we can,” he says. “We see a lot of personal tragedies, work long hours, collaborate with a range of people and have to learn a lot to stay afloat. It is life changing and impactful work that unites us—our common values. In these disaster situations, I believe IBM has unique value. Humbly, we are honored if we’re able to be an essential partner in bringing relief to those who need it.”

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