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Using Social Media To Get Help To Where It's Needed


And now to Mexico, which is still recovering after the earthquake. Two weeks ago, thousands of citizens volunteered to help those affected. The effort, though, was chaotic. So a group of techies in Mexico City used a hashtag to streamline the aid.

James Fredrick brings us the story.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: This was the scene in southern Mexico City at a 5-story apartment building just hours after it collapsed. It was surrounded by a disorganized flood of volunteers.

ADOLFO TOVAR: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Over a loudspeaker, Adolfo Tovar, a civil engineer coordinating the volunteer work, asks for help. He tells people to get on Facebook and Twitter and ask others to bring specific tools needed for the rescue. Jeronimo Esquinca saw this chaos throughout the city. He works in advocacy for Doctors Without Borders but was taking time off when the earthquake hit.

JERONIMO ESQUINCA: And that's when I said, we need information. We need concrete information.

FREDRICK: Jeronimo and dozens of other volunteers set out to organize the citizen efforts. One of them was Sandra Barron, a Harvard Nieman Fellow using tech for social justice.

SANDRA BARRON: We were a group of people that knew each other, and we knew that we could trust each other. And that's how it started, I think.

FREDRICK: This group of journalists, techies, cyclists and activists took on a name and a hashtag.

ESQUINCA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Verified September 19. Here's how it worked.

BARRON: So, for example...

FREDRICK: First, they established a network of contacts on the ground at disaster sites who sent requests for supplies or volunteers. Then, they took to social media under the Verificado hashtag to ask for help. Since the earthquake, they've reached millions of people on social media. Literal tons of food, water, first aid and tools were donated by Mexican citizens exactly where it was needed.

ESQUINCA: It was because of the clarity of the information and the clarity of the need and the actual bridging between those two.

FREDRICK: Here's Sandra.

BARRON: There were people that went to Home Depot and buy - there was this guy that bought, like, 50 machines for $1,000, and he would just, like, donate them.

FREDRICK: Volunteers like Sandra and Jeronimo literally worked around the clock coordinating aid. But this, of course, raised the question, why were citizens responsible for getting tools to rescue workers? This made Sandra angry, especially after it took hours to get vital tools to a collapsed building.

BARRON: I just can't stop thinking, how many people could've been saved if we had all these tools delivered by the government?

FREDRICK: As rescue efforts are ending, and these volunteers are ramping down their work, the feeling is bittersweet.

ESQUINCA: It was one strong, united moment filled with hope. And the next phase is a question mark. I wish we can continue with the same spirit of solidarity.

FREDRICK: They're hoping the Verificado hashtag won't be needed for the next natural disaster. But if it is, they know what to do. For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "A NEW DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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