“It’s not just work, it’s a mission. But then, at some point, the mission also takes its toll, and then we are there to support each other. So it’s more than just a task,” CovidCitizens.org’s Chaitanya Ramalingegowda
The cofounder of D2C furniture startup Wakefit, is one of 15 founders, non-profit workers and volunteers who have taken on the mission of easing the search for essential medicines, oxygen, hospital beds and more through CovidCitizens.Org.
The second wave of Covid in India has seen a tragedy in nearly every home, but it has also shown that Indians do not lack empathy or community action. From ordinary citizens to startup founders, we have seen groups coming together across the country. Another one to join the list is CovidCitizens.org, a collective of startup founders, technologists and non-profit organisations. The goal behind the platform as Wakefit cofounder Ramalingegowda told us is to bring some semblance of structure and organising data around the availability of medicine, oxygen and hospital to help citizens beat the resource crunch being seen in the current crisis.
The volunteer-run group is organising and structuring data for Covid resources and medicines from on-ground suppliers and helping meet the needs of patients through various digital channels such as voice-based channels, WhatsApp chatbots, helpline and social media.
Including Ramalingegowda, CovidCitizens.org collective comprises 15 individuals from the startup ecosystem as well as non-profit space, such as Accio.ai cofounder Ruman Agarwal, Nowfloats founder Jasminder Gulati, Introbot’s Divyaansh Anuj and Utkarsh Roy as well as leaders from Sheroes, The Product Folks, audio social media platform Fireside besides non-profit organisations United For Social Impact, Indiashield, startup studio Futuryze, Vruksh Ecosystem among others.
“We realised that our fellow citizens are in dire need of information. They are frantically turning to WhatsApp groups, Twitter and Facebook, and they’re calling up their friends and doctors. Information is being shared but neither is it verified nor is it structured,” Accio’s Agarwal told Inc42.
The goal was to get rid of the ‘forwarded as received’ WhatsApp culture, where no one knows whether the data is updated or recent or even genuine. “There is no relevance of the data. So our vision was to sort of consolidating all these different resources, verify them and make it a single source of truth which is fresh and verified,” he added.
On-Ground Data Structured To Help Indians Fight Covid
Ramalingegowda said that two focus areas for CovidCitizens.org are technology integration and on-ground supply creation, i.e. importing oxygen concentrators, increasing bed capacity and more. Of course, all of this needed data. “So we began with a team of 600 volunteers who first source the raw data for this engine from 10,000 – 12,000 suppliers in the cities where help is needed, which is very, very crucial. They had to do it manually, do it painstakingly to verify leads. These are leads that have been active in the recent 5 minutes or 10 minutes. And we had to ensure that it is a good supplier,” the Wakefit cofounder added.
The key stakeholders have virtual meetings everyday to get a status check. There’s no formal hierarchy either, but some members are handling core functions — for example, Agarwal handles the product and analytics end, while Fireside is handling the voice-based inquiries in dedicated channels along with regional language inquiries, while Introbot ‘s Anu and Roy are managing the WhatsApp chatbot feature.
“Steadily we kept on adding, but the beautiful part is our technology then takes over and augments as it is constantly verified in real-time by live users and by our volunteers. Whenever a user marks a lead as helpful or when a volunteer marks a lead as unresponsive, we are able to quickly take that into account and feed that into the recommendation engine.”
CovidCitizens Working With Authorities
Helping meet the needs of patients and relatives by connecting them to active leads on the ground has also allowed CovidCitizens to become a true source of information for where the Covid infections are rising.
“So if you look at our database and requests, you will see that Shimla, Nagpur, Thanjavur, Indore are the cities and areas that are going to hit their peak somewhere in the next 15 days.”
By mapping the demand, the platform is able to identify emerging hotspots and also able to tell where cases are falling, as it has done in a Twitter thread today (May 13). It has created a meaningful impact by providing this intelligence to authorities online and on the ground. “We have been able to put out data for about 10 different cities about the trends and where it’s going. And we have been trying to source the right authorities to share that data with them proactively. That can save some lives or it can help them plan in advance,” Agarwal said.
At COVID Citizens and @IntrobotAI, along with helping lakhs of citizens get resources at the right time, we are also evaluating patterns of demand in different cities. This is key to prevent shortages in the first place than to act reactively. #SavingAMillionLives
A thread 👇
— COVID Citizens (@COVIDCitizens) May 13, 2021
This data is also allowing the group to focus on the needs in each city more granularly. For instance, in Mumbai, where the peak has been crossed, the group is focussing more on mental wellness, home care, medication for post-Covid management, grief counselling and these kinds of requirements, whereas in Bengaluru or Hyderabad or Chennai, the need is for hospital beds or oxygen etc. The platform has a database of over 25,000 suppliers and resources spread across 200+ cities.
Amid the cacophony of helpline numbers and online resources to help those impacted by Covid, this structuring of data has made a real difference. At a time when the government has been blamed for its apathy towards data, this is an eye-opener on what data can do.
“When it comes to the WhatsApp bot, for example, typically we see about 5.5% to 6% people saying that the number helped them. This is, of course, across, hundreds of 1000s of requests, which come in fast. In one week, I think we did some 550K requests,” Agarwal, who handles the analytics, added.
While the number of ‘helped’ individuals might seem low, Agarwal mentioned that they didn’t expect this either. The fact that people are marking leads as helpful in times of need is vindication enough, he said. Many users might understandably not come back to the same place to mark a lead as helpful after they have received assistance.
Besides CovidCitizens.Org, we have seen startup founders come together to raise money for oxygen concentrators through MissionOxygen, as well as other efforts such as CryptoRelief, a community-run cryptocurrency-based fund delivering relief material and pushing for vaccination among youth in the ongoing crisis in India. CryptoRelief has so far raised over $1.03 Bn through its fund, which has seen Crypto evangelist Balaji Srinivasan, Coinbase CTO Surojit Chatterjee, Ethereum cofounder Vitalik Buterin, and Metakovan of Everydays by Beeple fame contribute.