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Social Media To The Rescue In Mumbai

When Mumbai was hit by terrorist attacks, residents used Google Docs to assist victims and render immediate assistance. Meanwhile, upstart news curators Storyful rose to the occasion with coverage that beat the big names.

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Mumbai is a social media-savvy city. It is also a magnet for terrorists who engage in acts of spectacular violence. During July 14th’s destructive terrorist attacks, Mumbai’s residents did not just out-report conventional news networks. When the bombings occurred during evening rush hour, shutting down transit networks throughout the famously congested city, residents also kicked in to use the power of cloud computing to help.

Shortly after the Mumbai bombs went off, residents (and outside sympathizers) began distributing links to a massive, editable Google Docs spreadsheet called MumbaiHelp with the names, addresses and phone numbers of residents who could offer their houses to stranded commuters or contact strangers’ loved ones to let them know they were okay. The massive volume of calls after the explosions temporarily brought down mobile-phone coverage around Mumbai.

The spreadsheet was primarily passed around Twitter and Facebook, with hundreds of retweets and shares helping to disseminate the information. The spreadsheet’s creator, New Delhi-based IT professional Nitin Sagar, lives more than 800 miles away from Mumbai.

Sagar’s spreadsheet took an elegant idea and ran with it. A large number of Mumbai residents were posting personal information on Twitter in order to assist stranded commuters with informal crashpads. However, hashtags related to the bombings such as #needhelp and #heretohelp were crowded with noise and difficult to search. In the end, the MumbaiHelp spreadsheet reportedly contained the names of more than 400 locals ready to offer assistance.

Meanwhile, upstart social-media curation tool Storyful rose to the occasion by creating a masterful Mumbai terrorist attack page that offered better online coverage than Indian media or international giants such as The New York Times and The Guardian. Storyful works through a proprietary platform that integrates still images, Tweets, video, and other social media products into a single storyboard.

Storyful’s coverage integrated reports from Indian television stations with Google Maps mashups and on-the-ground reports from Twitter users. The three explosions, which reportedly killed 21, took place in crowded commercial and tourist locations in Mumbai.

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The page, curated by Storyful’s Felim McMahon, archived early reactions by government officials alongside frightening eyewitness reports and graphic video.

For the young news aggregator, the Mumbai attacks were a sneak preview of how their platform could work during terrorist attacks in crowded, social media-adept city centers. Much of Storyful’s coverage focuses on Third World locations that may have sparse digital media representation or on feature stories that, while interesting, are not necessarily breaking news. But in crowded urban venues such as Mumbai, Storyful showed its strength, gathering trusted reporting from bystanders in places journalists could not reach easily.

According to Storyful’s press materials, the startup “uses the power of social networks to create an innovative, interactive and socially useful journalism.” In practice, this means offering their platform to both independent users who wish to create news storyboards for their blogs and offering curated news coverage through their site.

This year and 2012 are poised to be difficult years in terms of possible terrorist attacks. The slow collapse of the Pakistani and Afghan governments is occurring right alongside the ongoing unknown ramifications of the Arab Spring. Twitter has proven its usefulness as an emergency aid distributor to attack victims, while Storyful is giving an indication of what is coming next for online news coverage of breaking stories.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

[Image: Flickr user Avinash Anand]