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Flood of support

The usual reporting of natural disasters tends to concentrate on body counts. Body counts focus the mind. By using a universal system - numbers - they help people far removed from a disaster to understand the scale of what has happened. Body counts bridge the empathy gap: imagine the impact of one untimely death one mile from your home, then scale it up to 10,000 deaths 10,000 miles away.

In the past few weeks, several body counts have competed for our attention. Does the count resulting from the tsunami that struck the Pacific islands of Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga (176 confirmed dead) make this spectacle of woe any less appalling than the earthquake that hit Sumatra the following day (1,000 confirmed dead, 3,000 missing in Padang alone)? Or should we convert the body count to a percentage of population? And what of the devastation caused by Typhoon Ketsana in the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos? The death tolls are lower, but hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.

On the web, human tragedy trumps scale. "This is my house," a young Peace Corps blogger in American Samoa captions a photo of what is now a pile of wood and metal (tinyurl.com/ydmj9gx). This was your house. This was your village. This - a photo uploaded to Flickr of a dead woman lying face down in the mud at what was a busy traffic interchange in Manila - could have been your sister (tinyurl.com/y87tear). A chaos of video clips swells up, each showing a scene of destruction set to audio that sounds like it's coming from underwater (tinyurl.com/y9ege28). Of course, those that have lost the most fail to broadcast the tragedy they suffer. Here, the British Red Cross picks up the pieces (British Red Cross Flickr stream: tinyurl.com/y8grb5c).

On Twitter, our tears mingle freely with the flood, in 140 characters or less. The messages closest to the scene stand out the most: "Tweeps, if you'd like to volunteer for Padang, please contact me, departing at 8am tomorrow. Doctors and paramedics preferred" (tinyurl.com/yclyjqw). A video on YouTube shows surfers converting their boards into rafts to help get food to those cut off by Ketsana (tinyurl.com/ yecwkvz). Hope - as Voltaire knew - is what natural disasters lack in their immensity and what we, on the human scale, contribute best.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush