A flood of tweets is helping a megacity deal with extreme weather

We talk to Etienne Turpin, co-director of PetaJakarta.org, an open source platform that shares flood information in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, the world’s second largest megacity.

Etienne Turpin is a philosopher specialised in complex urban systems, aesthetics and visual culture. He believes that the only meaningful way to approach the problem of “urban flooding in the context of climate change is honest, open science with open source software and open data that can be reviewed by a community of users”.


PetaJakarta.org researcher Ariel Shepherd (left) and co-director Dr. Tomas Holderness (right) discuss strategies for engagement in Bukit Duri, Jakarta © Etienne Turpin


“It is well known that the old engineering approach to flooding just doesn’t work in megacities like Jakarta, and the heroic, consultant-based solutions are basically just ways for European firms to steal more money from the people of Indonesia,” Turpin says. “If we could admit that this old approach is a dramatic failure, we could then move on to ask: what can urban residents do together to reduce the dangers of extreme weather events and increase their enjoyment of the urban environment?”


He and Doctor Tomas Holderness came up with the idea of PetaJakarta.org, which uses the open source software CogniCity to “listen” to Twitter for keywords about flooding during the monsoon season in Jakarta. When words like “banjir” (flood) are heard, an invitation is sent to the original user asking them to specify if there is a flood in their location.

Potential flood reporters give details and spread pictures by sharing tweets with the hashtag #banjir with @petajkt. These are then displayed on a free public map visible at PetaJakarta.org, giving real time flood information and reports.


Jakarta has one of the highest concentrations of Twitter users in the world. Tens of thousands of Jakartans used PetaJakarta.org during major floods in 2014 and 2015.


“In the context of a disaster, people tend to turn to what they know, so if you’re using Twitter to get information in general, in a disaster you’ll use it even more frequently,” says Turpin.


Widya Ramadhani (left) and Ariel Shepherd (right) review risk exposure data in East Jakarta © Etienne Turpin.


We believe municipal governments and emergency agencies need to re-imagine the role of social media as a way of integrating the concerns and reports of residents in a more comprehensive, coordinated way.


The project is the result of a collaboration between the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong (where both Turpin and Holderness are research fellows) in Australia, the Jakarta Emergency Management Agency, and Twitter, amongst others.


Residents of Kampung Pulo, Jakarta look on as their neighborhood is flooded in January 2014 © Etienne Turpin


Dealing with flooding, which threatens cities around the world, requires adaptive thinking. In Turpin’s words, “the future of cities will be open source, or it won’t be much of a future at all”. PetaJakarta.org helps the city’s emergency management agency improve response and reduce costs by aggregating real time information whilst giving residents more influence on the process of disaster management.

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