When Tang sensed that the stock of face masks in Hong Kong was starting to dwindle two weeks ago, he saw that something else was also in short supply: Information about where to buy them and how much they cost. The deadly coronavirus outbreak has set off a scramble for the much sought-after commodity, creating lines of thousands outside shops and overwhelming shopping agents who help customers ship back overseas purchases.

Tang, a college sophomore who asked to be identified by his surname, had an idea: What if someone pulled together that information and shared it online in an organized way? He polled people about the plan on LIHKG, an anonymous forum similar to Reddit, where his post quickly got more than 100 upvotes. “I thought LIHKG is probably the easiest way to solicit public opinion,” he said. The next day, he created a Telegram channel called “Masks and Hygiene Products Supplies Information.”

The channel gives participants one simple task: Whenever you pass by a pharmacy, go in and see if there are any masks for sale. If the answer is positive, submit the information to the channel via a Telegram bot. It also encourages people to report scams.

The idea took off within days, especially after it was highlighted in other popular Telegram channels that share coronavirus-related information, such as HKGETV. Today, Tang’s channel has more than 35,000 subscribers receiving dozens of updates on their phones each day.

People line up to purchase protective masks in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Bay district on February 5. (Picture: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

Other grassroots information sharing efforts have also sprung up online in Hong Kong. Since the city confirmed its first coronavirus infection in late January, more than three dozen additional cases have been reported, including one death. Computer engineer Nandi Wong and his friends saw that people were looking for a one-stop site to find all the information they wanted to know about the spreading disease.

The idea behind the website wars.vote4.hk emerged from a Telegram group, Wong told Abacus. It’s made up of members who met through g0vhk, a platform of volunteers who aim to combine open source programming and crowdsourcing to make information more transparent to the public.

“It seemed to us that people out there really want information about masks, hospital emergency services and the coronavirus, but they didn’t have a convenient way to get access to that,” Wong said. “We discussed it in the group and thought something should be done.”

The website is designed to be clean and simple. It initially showed the latest numbers of coronavirus cases with brief summaries of confirmed cases, as well as waiting times at various hospital emergency rooms. The figures are mostly pulled from government-released data, but volunteers also update manually in real time as they listen to news conferences held by officials.

The site attracted nearly a million users within 24 hours of its launch, Wong said.

The site’s developers say they want to add more features to the site, but it might take time since volunteers can only help after work. (Picture: wars.vote4.hk/en/) 

Wong’s team of about 20 people is careful to state information sources, whether it’s government data or local news outlets. But one section that lists pharmacies accused of selling defective or over-priced face masks draws primarily from anonymous contributions submitted through a Google form on the site. It also links to Tang’s Telegram channel.

Tang admits that he can only rely on a handful of volunteer administrators and his thousands of subscribers to flag misinformation. Until a week ago, he was running the channel by himself, he said. As false rumors whirl around online, a pinned message in the channel reminds subscribers to “think independently” and welcomes anyone to help fact-check. The channel also regularly reminds people that the information they see is crowdsourced.

“I believe in showing all the facts and opinions and leaving people to judge by themselves,” he said. “With so many subscribers, I trust that someone will point out mistakes.”

Tang said he’s pleasantly surprised by his channel’s popularity, but he also feels conflicted.

“A friend told me, ‘You did a great thing, I really appreciate you,’ but all I think is that I’m finally doing a little something that’s actually helpful to this society,” he said. “And having more people on the channel isn’t better because it means more and more people are having trouble buying masks.”

Some experts say that rather than wearing masks, it’s more important for healthy people to avoid crowds, wash their hands and stop touching their face and eyes. Still, in this tiny city of over 7 million people, the government has advised everyone to wear a surgical mask when taking public transport or going to crowded places. One medical expert estimates that the city could burn through 300 million disposable masks a month during the outbreak.

Tang says despite the tips that he gets daily through his Telegram channel, he doesn’t have enough masks himself.

“When the chain stores are handing out tickets to customers in line, my team and I are either at work or have other things to do,” he said. “My mom is telling me to prepare to use only one new mask every week.”