On a dry spreadsheet, lives to be saved: How a collaborative document helped flood rescue efforts in Zhengzhou

Society & Culture

As floodwaters in Henan Province recede, China’s tech giants are doing their best to do their civic duty with large aid donations and online tools to help victims.

spreadsheet zhengzhou
A screenshot of the spreadsheet

A widely circulated shared spreadsheet on Tencent Docs has become a critical lifeline for people stranded after catastrophic floods in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province. 

The collaborative document — “Information about people waiting to be rescued” — was created on the night of July 20, when intense flooding, triggered by days of record-breaking torrential rain, hit the city of Zhengzhou, trapping subway passengers in waist-high water and forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

The main creator of the spreadsheet was Lǐ Ruì 李睿, a Henan-born college student who’s currently studying in Shanghai.

Hosted on Tencent Docs, a Tencent-backed online office suite like Google Docs that allows users to create and format text documents and collaborate with other people in real time, the spreadsheet so far has generated more than 2.5 million views and over 20,000 edits, according to Tencent, which confirmed on Wednesday that the document is now officially the most viewed file ever on its platform. 

In its original version, the spreadsheet was a simple list of entries about people in need of immediate assistance, mostly added by dozens of Li’s schoolmates. The document was structured to invite individuals to list details including the location of the person seeking help, the severity of their situation, and whether rescue has been accomplished. 

Less than an hour into its existence, the shared spreadsheet began attracting attention outside of Li’s friend circle, as anonymous contributors popped into the document, making it an ever-expanding community of crowdsourced information.

By midnight on Tuesday, additional columns were added, including one that let fact-checking volunteers verify each self-reported entry. A new sheet was created, which displayed information about locations of emergency shelters across the city. To present information more effectively, the entire document was organized in different colors, each of them representing a degree of urgency. 

The document also provided a platform where people could exchange encouraging words and safety tips. “Don’t touch anything that uses electricity, such as street lights in flood areas. There is a heightened risk of electric shock that could seriously injure or kill you,” a contributor warned in the document. At one point, further down in the spreadsheet, an anonymous user found an unused space to vent his frustration about the entire situation. His message was surrounded by blocks of texts telling him to “hang in there” and “remain optimistic.”

The next morning, for a brief period of time, the spreadsheet was locked from further updates due to an unusual amount of traffic. Given the special circumstance, Tencent Docs quickly increased the number of people allowed to work on the document simultaneously. 

Meanwhile, Tencent also launched a new template specifically designed to support relief efforts by connecting people in distress to rescuers with resources. The template, established on Wednesday, has given rise to more than 1,800 similar documents in various communities. 

In a viral article (in Chinese) chronicling the evolution of the original document, Tencent writes that although it is unable to calculate the exact number of people who have benefited from the spreadsheet, it is proud to be part of the grassroots initiative. “When we see messages crying for help being crossed out, more and more people declaring safety, and the situation improving, we are reminded that love and hope are alive and well,” the company remarked.

Since last weekend, heavy downpours have been pummeling Henan, causing the worst flooding in recorded history. On Thursday, the official death toll across the province climbed to 33 with eight people missing and 376,000 people being relocated, according to state broadcaster CCTV. The direct economic costs were more than 1.2 billion yuan ($186 million), the broadcaster said.

As deadly floods ravaged the area, a slew of Chinese tech companies — including Alibaba, Tencent, ByteDance, and Xiaomi — have devoted resources and invented digital tools to assist first responders and people affected by the disastrous event.

Alibaba, one of the first companies responding to the news, announced (in Chinese) on Tuesday that it would make an initial donation of 100 million yuan ($15.45 million) while the Jack Ma Foundation, under the name of its founder and former CEO, would chip in 50 million yuan ($7.73 million). Yesterday, Alibaba said that it would make an additional donation of 100 million yuan to relief efforts and recovery projects, along with another 100 million yuan donation (in Chinese) from Ant Group, the fintech arm of the company.

Alibaba also customized its tools to keep up with information demands on the areas affected. AutoNavi, a digital mapping service controlled by Alibaba, launched a special function (in Chinese) that highlights the areas hardest hit by flooding and lets users publish help messages inside the app. Meanwhile, its logistics company, Cainiao, and retail platform, Hema Fresh, committed to distributing essential items in Zhengzhou for free.

At Tencent, in addition to the template for information sharing, a donation of 100 million yuan has been made. Tencent’s news service also activated a special section to give live updates on the flooding situation. 

ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, dedicated its 100 million yuan donation to children in affected communities. “Our priority is to ensure the safety of affected children and provide services for them. Our targeted recipients are children at rescue homes, orphanages, and emergency shelters,” it wrote in a statement (in Chinese).