Mumbai turns to Twitter for help mapping India’s monsoon floods

MUMBAI (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) – When monsoon rains sweep into Mumbai each year, residents of India’s financial hub find their social media feeds awash with flood memes – from Venetian gondolas plying the city’s deluged streets to office workers commuting on inflatable dinghies.

This year, a research institute hopes social media can play a more practical role – asking residents to tweet details about floods in their neighbourhoods and using the data to issue geographically specific flood alerts in real-time.

“Since we cannot monitor flooding across the city ourselves, we thought of taking the help of the community,” said Subimal Ghosh, head of the Climate Studies department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, which is behind the initiative.

Around the world in countries including Australia and Indonesia, climate researchers are increasingly using data gathered via social media to help monitor weather events such as floods.

They say the data could be used to improve emergency response and rescue efforts and make forecasting more accurate, which will become all the more vital as climate change fuels extreme weather.

“We need participatory models for climate adaptation as we will be hit by more extreme rainfall events in the near future. We will be able to show real-time flooding like Google Maps shows red for traffic,” said Ghosh.

India’s financial capital, which lies on the coast of the Arabian Sea, has recorded “extreme” rainfall – defined as more than 200mm of precipitation in 24 hours – about a dozen times between 2017 and 2021, civic data shows.

That is double the number of such events during the previous five-year period.

The IIT-Bombay project, launched in June just ahead of the monsoon, will use digital elevation maps that show an area’s height above sea level, spatial rainfall data along with the tweets of local residents.

Tweets noting “ankle-deep” or “knee-deep” water, for example, will be harvested from Twitter using an automated system that will try to extract flood depth and location information from them.

This will be used to give real-time flood information for the entire city that will be put out on a portal.

For instance, “which areas need water to be pumped out first, how can the traffic be controlled and how can people reach home?” Ghosh said.

“The city needs a resilience plan,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.