BY OSCAR LOPEZ
OCT 17, 2017
On a Tuesday afternoon in September, Ángel Rodríguez, 31, was at a coworking space in downtown Mexico City when the earth began shaking.
"Rocks and pot plants started falling around me,” he told me. “Everybody rushed outside — I thought the building was going to fall down. There were thousands of people on the street, clouds of smoke, buildings swaying."
Once safely on the street, Rodríguez took out his phone and tried to get in touch with his family, but found that phone lines were down. Instead, he turned to Twitter to see what was going on. Scrolling through his feed, he saw the news: A 7.1 magnitude earthquake had struck 55 km (34 miles) south of the city of Puebla, the tremor leveling buildings across the country.
The quake had hit just as Hurricane Maria was heading for Puerto Rico, barely a week after Hurricane Irma had wreaked havoc across the Caribbean: It seemed like the world was falling apart.
Realizing the scale of the disaster in his own city, Rodríguez ran to the nearest fallen building to see how he could help. Together with dozens of other young people, he formed a human chain to begin clearing the rubble. It was sweaty work, but after a while, he realized that, between all the volunteers and rescue workers, the help they were offering was pretty minimal.
"We were basically just moving rocks from one place to another," he says. "I don’t know anything about pick axes or shovels. So I decided to help with something that I do know about: ideas."
Together with a colleague at the ad agency where he works, Edgar Elorza, 33, they began brainstorming a different way to support relief efforts: "What if we could come up with a way for people to donate that was very familiar but could reach people in Mexico and all over the world?"
Not far away, in the trendy Roma neighborhood, Sergio Beltrán, 29, an architect specializing in public memorials, was also busy working when the earthquakes struck. He too ran outside, and saw the building had completely collapsed. "That’s when I realized how serious this was," he says.
Like Rodríguez, the first thing Beltrán did was to take out his smartphone. Beltrán is part of a WhatsApp group made up of lawyers, journalists, activists, and others who met during the Yo Soy 132 movement which protested the candidacy of president Enrique Peña Nieto. He calls it "a network of trust communicating on WhatsApp."
Immediately after the quake, the group was filled with messages from people checking if everyone was OK, but also wondering what they could do to help. Social media was buzzing with information, but with so many competing accounts, it was impossible to know what was accurate. So Beltrán had an idea.
"I decided to create a map on Google Maps," he says, "with a layer showing the locations of all the collection centres and damaged buildings." Beltrán's hope was that people could use the map to easily find the places where donations or volunteers were most needed, as well as dangerous areas to avoid.
"I checked on social media and through the WhatsApp group to verify the locations," he says. "I launched it onto Twitter, and then I headed to the collapsed building to see how I could help."
Like Beltrán and Rodríguez, young people across Mexico City and around the country mobilized to help with recovery efforts in the wake of a devastating earthquake that killed over 350 people and left thousands displaced.
Far from the apathy and egotism that many have pinned on today’s young people, Mexican millennials demonstrated the ingenuity, digital savviness, and solidarity that characterizes this generation.
As journalist and commentator Javier Aranda Luna wrote recently in the Jornada newspaper, “In a matter of minutes, the avalanche of young people willing to help broke the myth of a generation that’s self-centered, selfish, and with little solidarity.
"Millennials went from their 140-character chatter to action in a matter of minutes. They were the best team of reporters because they were everywhere, broadcasting live or reporting the tragedy. They were the best thermometer to measure the health of a broken city.”
When Beltrán arrived at the collapsed building, he realized that, though there were plenty of people arriving with donations, "nothing was organized." After hearing from a friend that his map had received more than a million views, Beltrán decided to find a way to better organize information using social media.
Thanks to a contact at the city’s Civil Protection office, he managed to get a hold of a database of earthquake information. He uploaded the info onto the map, and immediately had locations of collapsed buildings, evacuation zones, and collection centres across the city. Within hours, the map had more than 2 million views.
Realizing how useful the map had become, Beltrán got together with the activists, journalists, lawyers, and others from his WhatsApp group the next day to see how they could take their work to the next level. Together, they came up with a hashtag: #Verificado19S (Verified19S). They began using the hashtag to promote Beltrán’s map, as well provide verified information on what was needed and where it could be collected or donated. With more than 500,000 Twitter followers between them, the hashtag quickly went viral, retweeted hundreds of thousands of times.
At first, Beltrán and his colleagues used photos on social media as well as eyewitness accounts in affected areas to verify the information. Later, he got together with a pro-cycling activist group called Bicitekas. As soon as a news came in about a fallen building or an aid centre, cyclists from the organization were dispatched to the location in order to verify the information.
"It was all about agility and speed," he says.
"Millennials went from their 140-character chatter to action in a matter of minutes."
Once the information was verified, Beltrán and his team created digital postcards with what was needed and where, so that other young people could bring supplies or lend a hand. Thousands of people fanned out across the city, delivering water, medicines, building supplies and more to help the broken city recover.
Meanwhile, Rodríguez and his colleague Elorza, from the ad agency, had also been busy developing their own digital solution to the real-world chaos around them. In just three days, working with other young colleagues at the ad agency, they came up with a new online platform: Arriba Mexico, a website which allows you to book a "symbolic stay" in a house or apartment that was destroyed by the earthquake.
Modeled on AirBnB, Arriba Mexico lets you browse through different homes and find one that suits your budget. Of course, the "booking" is only symbolic — the funds you donate from your "stay" are transferred directly to Cadena, a local NGO working on relief efforts across the country.
Since launching Arriba Mexico, Rodríguez says the site has received over 54 million pageviews, with donations ranging from 50 pesos (around US$2.70) up to 15 thousand pesos (US$800) from major donors. In total, they’ve raised more than 300 thousand pesos (US$16,000), but are hoping to receive much more with donations from big businesses. They’ve also been in touch with people in Puerto Rico, and are in the process of developing Arriba Puerto Rico, to help with relief efforts following Hurricane Maria. Beltrán, too, is in discussion with people in Puerto Rico to see how Verificado19S can help.
But Beltrán and Rodríguez were far from the only millennials finding creative ways to support the earthquake relief efforts.
Carlota Rangel and Ruy Feben created Mi Casa es Tu Casa, an online platform that linked displaced people with others that had a home or a room to offer. Lucía Valencia, Marisol García Walls and Roberto Cruz Arzabal launched a blog called "Tell Us Where You Were," which invites people to share their stories and experiences of the quake online, as a means of national catharsis. And while many used digital tools, many more millennials were across the city, forming human chains to clear the rubble and rescue people trapped underneath.
As Beltrán said, "Twitter was just the opening. It was the trust we had, day after day, that allowed us to work together."