Covid19.org.in is a website that we may have all come across in the last few months. It has not only helped us keep track of the pandemic on a local level but has kept us abreast of the global developments as well. This is the story of how a volunteer-run, socially-sensitive site came into existence.
“It started in the first week of March. There were a lot of Whatsapp forwards being exchanged about the pandemic from other countries such as Spain and Italy. The government held a press conference so people would not panic, but there was so much misinformation or lack of information that people were anxious and panic-stricken,” says Chowdari Babu, the co-founder of the website. On 13 March, he and his colleagues from Conceptive Consulting (an information-technology consulting firm out of Hyderabad) decided to register the website Covid19.org.in. Their aim was simple—to provide reliable, minute by minute information on the pandemic that people could access at any time.
It was easier said than done. What they were proposing would need multiple teams working several hours a day, gathering information, processing that information, fact-checking it, and then uploading it at great speed. With the lockdown already in place, there was no way to get in touch with individuals who could help and time was of the essence. So Chowdari Babu decided to start with his professional social network. He put the word out asking for collaborators and he was not disappointed. People from all walks to life, including doctors, engineers, and others came to his aid. Slowly, they were able to build a group of volunteers across India who would look for information on state government websites, newspapers, and local news too.
Each of these teams created what is known as a “slack channel” or information route, that would start at the source of information and through various steps would finally find its way on the website. “Each slack channel had various jobs and I interacted with them daily,” says Chowdari Babu. Statistical information was collated from the National Disaster Agency, John Hopkins University, as well as local NGOs. “Contact tracing was a major concern at the time. We used to provide an information dashboard for this and drill down to the district level,” he says. Similarly, there was a research information section, a vaccine status section, a section on how to make masks as well as updates from www.rightdoctors.com. A task that would have otherwise taken 10 lacs to create had been done overnight simply because enough people were motivated to join the cause for the greater benefit of all.
The founders wanted the website to be as user-friendly as possible and for this reason, they continually asked for feedback. A lot of people had been requesting for information on whom to contact in case there were suspected Covid-19. The website quickly took this feedback and provided helpline numbers. There was also a demand for information on where to get tested. The website quickly provided a quick-access button that would geo-locate the closest testing centre in your area. “There was also a need for positive news,” says Babu, “We created a section for stories that would serve as positive assurances which people could look to for inspiration during these tough times.” One of the stories featured here was that of a collective of farmers in Satara who had found a way to sell their stock during the lockdown. “I contacted Anmol Srivastav, who had first shared this story on social media and asked if we could publish his story on our platform. Similarly, there was another lady in Mumbai, Rupa, who was focused on mental health support during the pandemic. She too collaborated with us,” Babu explains. Because of this collaboration, they were also able to add a mental health section on their website which had FAQs, a questionnaire as well as helpline numbers.
Thanks to the efforts of Chowdari Babu and his team, the website quickly earned a reputation as a reliable and up-to-date source of information. At first, there were 5000 visits per day, then 10,000 and at its highest, the website received 15,000 visits per day. “We had such a huge response that we even had to change the servers and bolster the backend resources so that the site could handle the traffic,” he says.
Currently, a team of 3 people from Conceptive Consulting as well as a team of 10 external collaborators and various other teams are working on this website. “There is now a team that is also fundraising for and distributing PPE kits and masks to hospitals.” They also try to affected groups as and when possible. “One community of farmers recently contacted us. They had 1000 tonnes of mangoes and no way to distribute them. By using google maps, we were able to figure out a way to get these mangoes distributed and home delivered to places outside containment zones,” he says.
“Being from a product management background, I wanted to ensure that whatever we create is best suited for the user. We often have ideas for how to solve a problem but it is empathy that makes that idea into a real-world solution. Through this website, we have been able to serve not 100s but 1000s,” he concludes.
Chowdari Babu is supported by Bhushan, Ivatury , Ravishankar Varma , Partha Bhatia, Abhay Agarwal and manufacturer’s of covid19 essentials.
If you wish to convert feedback into actionable steps that will benefit society at large, the way that Chowdari Babu and his colleagues did, then please join a Giving Circle or create one of your own.