When the skies opened up on 29th August and brought Mumbai to a grinding halt, the only wing of the government that earned the gratitude of ordinary people was the Mumbai police. The traffic cops were at every trouble spot, in their fluorescent yellow rainwear, patiently guiding people, helping them navigate flooded streets or even helping to push a stalled vehicle to the side, to clear the roads. Like the people of Mumbai, the traffic police invariably do a brilliant job of managing large crowds during planned events (the annual Ganesh immersion day, Ambedkar Jayanti or various public rallies). But their performance, this time, was also attributed to two other factors—the electronic eye that was providing feedback to the control room from over 4,700 CCTV (close circuit television) cameras in 1,510 locations across the city, combined with the excellence of its social media handle (@MumbaiPolice) which continually relayed feedback to and from the control room to people who tagged it with messages of distress. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to amplify the benefits of technology and social media for better policing and other situations? Dr Pradnya Saravade, additional director general, Maharashtra police, already has put out some interesting ideas about what can be done. She says, “There are reports of the good presence of the city police on the roads through the night and their work in keeping the traffic situation in control, despite very slow movement of vehicles through waist-deep waters at many places. The sensitivity and responsiveness of the Mumbai Police Twitter handle during the entire ordeal was really good and has been much appreciated by the users. What does this episode of natural disaster teach us to do better next time? ”She suggests that images captured by over 4,700 cameras should be linked @MumbaiPolice Twitter handle so that live information can be communicated to people even faster.
Dr Saravade also suggests integrating Google maps with the CCTV network, to get more accurate information. But Google maps are already highly accurate. We know at least one instance, of an IT executive travelling from Bandra-Kurla starting at 2pm that day reached Pune by 6pm by faithfully following the roads suggested by Google maps, although it was completely different from the normal, most direct route to Pune used by him every week. On the other hand, his colleague, who started half an hour later, took over seven hours to reach Prabhadevi, by not relying on Google maps and getting further stuck in traffic by experimenting with different routes. Incidentally, traffic updates from @MumbaiPolice on the closing and, later, the opening, of the Worli sea-link as well as trains was a huge help to people. Pushing information faster to the social media handle by linking CCTV cameras would certainly be a big disaster management tool. Communicating information captured by CCTV cameras to policemen on the ground would also help them guide people and help divert traffic away from trouble spots and clogged routes.
The fact that most people have mobiles and their networks performed admirably was also an important factor this time.
Dr Saravade also suggests posting GIS map-based visual information on the police website “to display information on food/water/shelter sites across the city.” While citizens did an admirable job of circulating such information on WhatsApp and Twitter, an official source for updates would be more credible and reassuring, she says.
Dr Saravade also suggests a larger deployment of electronic information boards across the city which could be used for information on traffic, trains/buses as well as food and shelter with appropriate hashtags. Dr Saravade, correctly, says people look to the government for credible information in times of disaster and technology now provides “that single-point authentic source for coordinating an effective response.”