While the World Watches, Japan Tweets Its Way Out of Disaster

Amid the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami, Twitter and the like have helped spread news and search for the missing

When disaster strikes, citizens of the world get social.

Viewers around the globe have been getting their news about the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan via real-time reports on television and the Internet. But for those closer to the affected areas, that hasn’t always been possible: Power outages meant television wasn't an option and jammed cell networks made voice calls nearly impossible. For them, social media and Internet resources quickly became the tools used to spread news, cry for help, pass information to family and friends, and even search for the missing. 

Twitter JapanSince the earthquake hit, Twitter, Facebook (and Japan's social media site Mixi), YouTube and sites like Google's Crisis Response have taken the lead to a degree never before seen in emergencies. Just as Facebook served as a way for Egyptian citizens to coordinate their efforts in the recent uprising in that country, so has social media like Twitter become "the go-to service in emergencies," as Chris Taylor wrote on the social and digital media news website Mashable.

The stories are legion. Americans stranded in Tokyo hotels told ABC news they've been using the Internet exclusively to send messages home. Japanese victims have utilized special Twitter hashtags to plead for help. Fundraising efforts have been coordinated via Facebook's Causes app.

"We've done this before for the disasters in Haiti, Chile and Christchurch, New Zealand," Google spokesperson Jamie Yood said of his company's "Person Finder," which allows users to search for information on a missing person, or to pass along info on those who've been located.

"But we already have more entries for Japan than we had for the other three combined." Person Finder, which Google created after the 2010 Haiti earthquake to compile 14 different missing-person databases in one place, is currently tracking more than 160,000 records in Japan, more than 10 times the number from February's New Zealand quake.

"When we have time to breathe," he said, Google will begin going through the info to determine how much success they've had in finding records for those looking for missing friends and relatives.

One reason why social media played a large role is that Japan is an unusually active country in that arena: of the country's 100 million people, about one in 10 are active Twitter users, according to ComScore. Facebook has a much smaller presence in the country, but 20 million Japanese are reportedly active on Mixi. 

Japanese Twitter postings surged immediately after the earthquake, when many mobile services made it easier to use text and data services than to make phone calls. Within an hour of the disaster, tweets originating from Tokyo topped 1,200 per minute, according to the Tweet-o-Meter, a UK-based tracking service that measures worldwide traffic.

Even as Twitter became a hotbed for pointed debate over nuclear energy, the service put up a Japanese page (with English translation) offering tips for special hashtags (including #Hinan for evacuation information and #J_j_helpme for aid requests), links to mobile phone message boards with information on survivors who have reported in, and other information and tips. The service also offers a Twitter mobile website for Japanese mobile phones.

Google has also optimized its Crisis Response page for mobile phones – because, somewhat surprisingly, the company says that its figures show that only seven percent of mobile phone users in Japan have smart phones. The Japanese-only page (goo.gl/keitai) "has been designed for those in shelters who have limited access to the Internet and may not have smart phones," said Yood.

Shelter pageAnother addition specially aimed at those in shelters, he said, is a series of photo albums. "It's hard to get word out when you're in a shelter," he said, "but most of the shelters post a list of the people who are there. So we've asked people to take photos of those lists and send them to us, and we'll upload those to our albums. And then we've got volunteers going through the lists and manually adding the names to Person Finder."

(In a way, the photo albums and Person Finder are the higher-tech, 2011 equivalent of the flyers that papered lower Manhattan after 9/11, in which people sought any information they could get about the missing friends and family.)

As with almost everything else about the disaster, he said, social media and Internet tools helped make this reponse to the horrific situation faster and more far-reaching than it had ever been before.

"It started after Haiti, when a group of our engineers said, 'Let's build a team to respond to crises,'" he said. "We built the first Person Finder within 72 hours after the Haiti earthquake, but this time we were up within an hour of the earthquake. We've never before been able to react this fast or do this much."

Online and social media resources:

Google Crisis Reponse page.
Person Finder
Public Photo Gallery
Emergency Food & Water Distribution spreadsheet
Bathroom spreadsheet

Twitter disaster info.

Global Voices, which has been translating Japanese-only citizen-media reports and social-media postings on the disaster, has a roundup of social-media translations, as well as another on all the false rumors being spread via twitter.

Global Disaster Relief page on Facebook.

(Photos courtesy of Google)