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Game app aims to show Pakistan flood crisis lingers

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 21 Jun 2011 14:41 GMT
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NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - The world may have forgotten the massive floods that inundated Pakistan almost a year ago, but a game application ('app') is trying to keep up awareness of the crisis among an untapped group of people – Facebook and Smartphone users.

"Relief Copter" is an effort by a small, Islamabad-based media firm to highlight the plight of survivors of last year's disaster, which decimated villages from the far north to the deep south and disrupted the lives of over 18 million people.

The game – featuring a relief helicopter that drops crates of aid items which must be navigated to various points – is available free on Nokia, iphone and social networking site Facebook, and has generated tens of thousands of downloads since its launch in October.

But the app goes one step further. As well as a slideshow, after the completion of each level there is a photograph and a "flood fact" about the disaster, which is seen as one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent times – bigger than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in terms of displacement, crop and infrastructure damage, livelihood loss and recovery needs.

"When we were designing the app, it seemed like the floods had completely washed away the world's conscience, no one seemed to take notice," said Mohsin Afzal, CEO of Werplay (http://www.werplay.com), developers of the game.

"You have a captive audience that is engaged, and you can use games as a medium to raise awareness and funds for a good cause. For me, it was a no-brainer," he told AlertNet by phone from Islamabad.

"NO ONE KNOWS"

The impact of the floods – which submerged one fifth of the country, left 11 million homeless, killed nearly 2,000 and destroyed millions of acres of crops – still lingers almost a year on, aid workers say.

United Nations officials say while all the displaced have returned home or resettled elsewhere, many do not have the means to rebuild their destroyed homes or restart their livelihoods.

Donor funding has been slow for recovery needs and around 30 percent of the almost $2 billion appealed for by the U.N. and Pakistan government has not been met.

Aid workers say the lack of funding, as in many disasters, is down to donor fatigue, the global financial crisis and a lack of awareness about the challenges faced by survivors.

Afzal, 28, who returned to Pakistan last July after completing an MBA at Berkeley, agrees.

"When the Haiti quake hit, and it was all over the news in America, there was so much coverage and outpouring of sympathy and aid," he said. "In complete contrast, practically no one in America knows about Pakistan floods."

Together with a few of his friends, Azfal founded Werplay and now leads a young, dynamic team of 15, including a 17-year-old who is behind the development of the app's facebook version of "Relief Copter".

The app has hit 90,000 downloads on the Nokia Ovi store, 900 on the iphone's app store and 600 people play the facebook version, said Afzal, adding that downloads have been made from over 100 countries – most from neighbouring India.

"The mainstream media has nearly forgotten about the recent floods in Pakistan, although scores of people are still struggling with the aftermath of this terrible disaster," said one reviewer on the iphone app store. "Downloading this app is a direct and fulfilling way to show that you still care."

CLOSED DOORS

But while "Relief Copter" may have generated awareness, the main intention of Afzal and his team – to raise funds from the purchase of the game – has failed. The iphone version had only generated around $50 before Werplay decided to make it a free app. 

"What we wanted to accomplish with Relief Copter didn't happen in terms of the funds that we wanted to raise," he said.

"App discovery is a big issue and it's so easy for our small game to get lost in the millions of apps out there ... we didn't have much of a marketing budget and few were willing to support us with promotion, including the aid agencies."  

Afzal said he approached relief groups working on flood relief in Pakistan such as Oxfam, Save the Children, the U.N. agency for children (UNICEF) and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), but with no luck.

"I still think this kind of fund raising can work. People easily spend 99 cents on an app, so why not provide them with an opportunity to spend that 99 cents on something that does good. They are going to get more value out of it," he said.   

"We were too small to do it on our own, without support, but it can work,” he added. “In the end, we hope we have at least educated people about the floods."

 (Editing by Rebekah Curtis)

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