Story

For a moment, Mumbai no further away than Ground Zero

By Mariano Castillo, special to the Pulitzer Center
New York, NY

Mariano Castillo's contribution is the result of a partnership between the Pulitzer Center and the Columbia University course "Wired World," taught by Anya Schiffrin, Tom Glaisyer, and Jed Miller. Mariano is the former Border Bureau Chief for the San Antonio Express-News, and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in International Affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

I hadn't planned on staying awake late into the night following the developments following Wednesday's coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Online, I had read about the unidentified gunmen whose bombs and indiscriminate shooting killed more than 100. The scope of this cruel act shocked and saddened me, but it was time for bed. Suddenly, a routine Facebook check before turning in led me down a rabbit hole of information that brought Mumbai next door.

Tweetgrid

An army of citizen journalists, using the full arsenal of Web 2.0 tools – from Twitter to Wikipedia to Google Maps – provided me a second reading of the night's news in Mumbai. It gave an entirely different experience from reading the newspaper stories online.

Bloggers and micro-bloggers shared eye-witness accounts, posted photographs from the scene, distributed emergency phone numbers and displayed an outpouring of support to Indians in a collective action that showed the best of what the future of the Internet offers.

While the traditional media was reporting that the Taj Mahal Hotel was still under siege, Mumbai Twitterer Priya Shah wrote, "I see smoke still from Taj and I have heard more than 5 gunshots in last 10 mins."

The high speed of communication between dozens, hundreds, of strangers, however, also raised some questions. Were the eye-witness accounts getting too far ahead of what authorities knew? Could these tools tip off the terrorists of where the early investigation was heading?

My journey started with a friend's Facebook status: "stunning global discussion about Mumbai at Tweetgrid."

I followed the link to a Web site with real-time "tweets" from Twitter users in India and around the world. Using their mobile phones or the Internet, the quick-moving updates painted a detailed, if fragmented, account of what was unfolding in the aftermath of the attacks

The tweets came so fast that it was hard to read an update before a pile of new ones pushed it down the page, but it created a sense of urgency, more so because a number of posters were reporting that Indian authorities wanted the live updates stopped.

"Please stop giving out sensitive information that [will] help terrorists and will foil police operations in Mumbai," read one tweet. Others decried the idea of stopping the flow of news.

Watching this debate unfold, together with unofficial accounts of fatalities and damage assessment by people in Mumbai, gave me the same feeling of reporting a story on deadline from a disaster site. My heartbeat quickened. These were unofficial accounts and rumors that required a journalist like me to filter and weigh their credibility. Except that no one here needed a journalist.

Dina Mehta, another Twitterer, nailed it: "guess we're all the media in some way."

In this collective space, people were questioning each other, and providing Web links to give credibility.

Flickr

One of those links took me to Vinukumar Ranganathan's Flickr page. Ranganathan, a young engineer, was among the first to post photos of survivors and the debris-covered streets. Before the night was over, his Flickr photo album, which averaged 8 visitors per day, was nearing 250,000 hits and was featured on CNN and Yahoo! News.

Another link pointed to a live feed for NDTV in India.

These emerging social networking tools proved their usefulness in the aftermath of this tragedy. User-generated Google Maps showed all of the terrorist targets. GooglemapMumbaibombings

Twitter_bloodtype

One hospital began set up a number where volunteers can send an SMS text message from a mobile phone with their blood type; the hospital texts back with an appointment for a blood donation.

All this interaction, the feeling of hearing the news from people on the ground, made my second reading of the Mumbai bombings hit much closer to home. For a moment, Mumbai was no further away from my Manhattan apartment than Ground Zero.