Japan Earthquake: The Role of Google and Social

Five months have passed since the big earthquake on March 11. Today, many people’s lives have not yet fully recovered and subsequent problems continue to affect the rest of the population in Japan and the world.

It was too eventful to look back and write about what happened. In this article, I’ll write about what our industry leaders have done to help people in Japan.

Due to the earthquake and tsunami, traditional communication lines were cut off and overloaded. This caused great trouble to people in the country. A big earthquake and tsunami or any natural disaster is a scary thing. However, lost in communication and not being able to check your family and friends’ safety are just as frightening.

Millions of people dialed their families and friends to see if they were safe, but the lines were overloaded. It was said about 74 percent of people tried to use their mobile to call and check the safety status of their families on March 11. Yet, the telecommunication lines were physically damaged in the North, and overloaded at the same time. People had to find another way to communicate with others.

Google released Person Finder 2011 just two hours after the earthquake, a service where you can check the safety of people online. Users can check in their safety status and, or also find family and friends’ safety status. Here comes the world leader in indexing information, indexing people’s safety statuses and helping many people to connect.

Google Person finder is used by thousands around the world, but my ‘wow’ goes to the time it takes to release this service.

How can Google get a team to design the service, write the code, localise, and release it in such a short time? I imagine such processes would typically take several approvals or protocol to execute, not to mention during a crisis.

Google has a special team called the Google Crisis Response. It’s not the first time Google has done this. The team has helped the Christchurch Earthquake, Brazil Flood and Landslides, Australia Floods, Pakistan Floods, Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Qinghai Earthquake, Chile Earthquake, Haiti Earthquake, Typhoon Morakot, Lockheed Wildfire of Santa Cruz, California, and many more.

Activities of the team are described as the following:

  • Organising emergency alerts, news updates, and donation opportunities, and making this information visible through their web properties
  • Building engineering tools that enable better communication and collaboration among crisis responders and among victims such as Person Finder and Resource Finder
  • Providing updated satellite imagery and maps of affected areas to illustrate infrastructure damage and help relief organisations navigate disaster zones
  • Supporting the rebuilding of network infrastructure where it has been damaged to enable access to the Internet
  • Donating to charitable organisations that are providing direct relief on-the-ground

When the earthquake occurred, operations at Google Japan had to stop for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, a team was formed at Google Crisis Response to develop new services that will help people in Japan. The local team joined after 60 minutes and the service was built and localised in 90 minutes. At 120 minutes, the service was released for both PC and mobile users.

As the service only works online, people that wanted to confirm survivors at refuge camps were isolated from the Internet to check in. But the service went beyond online forms.

Although Internet connection was limited, some had access to the Internet through their mobile. They posted a handwritten survivors list from refuge camps to Google’s photo service Picasa and used OCR to read photos and convert into the database.

Unfortunately, OCR was not accurate enough. So they acquired 4,800 volunteers from in and out of Google to convert photos into the database. As a result, 140,000 pieces of data were manually input by these volunteers.

Many people and the media quickly found this service convenient and useful. They collaborated to make one central database to help more people. Local media companies like NHK and Asahi News teamed up with Google and supplied its database that grew to 590,000 people.

Person Finder 2011 is just one example of an Internet service that helped people during a crisis. Social networks like Twitter, Mixi, and Facebook have also acted as communication platforms.

Twitter was used to spread and share information fast and wide among multiple platforms. Twitter is the most popular communication service that is implemented to a variety of third-party applications. Hence it was convenient for many to use during this time.

Mixi is Japan’s most connected social network. People used the service to communicate and connect with others. About 14 percent of people in Japan have said they used Mixi or other SNS to communicate. The connection from friends, friends of friends, and friends of family are all in the social graph to share their status.

We have developed technology and service to make people’s lives convenient and make money. But when the world needs help, it is great to know we can use these technologies and services to help people too. I send many thanks to the service developers that have helped the people in Japan.

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