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Search and Social Media Responses to the Japan Earthquake

by Jessica Lee, March 17, 2011

In the wake of the natural disaster that affected residents of Japan on March 11, 2011, one resource was immediately available to help organize and carry out emergency information and rescue: The Internet.

Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter provided platforms for people across the country - and world - to communicate and connect during times of need. These resources can be life-saving when time is of the essence, and when other forms of communication aren't available or simply aren't as effective.

Many of us understand the power of the Internet, but its impact on our lives is becoming more and more evident as it continues to play a major role in the way we carry out important tasks.

The Egyptian revolution has been credited as something that was facilitated, at least in part, through the power of social media. We also see companies using social media as part of crisis communications, as we saw with BP.

And now, social media and the Internet is helping people in times of natural disaster: the Chile, Haiti and Japan earthquake incidents all experienced a layer of social media as part of emergency communications.

Considering that mass communication used to be a one-sided process, in the hands of the news media, now, people all over the world can initiate communications during important events - and this has changed and improved the way we can respond in times of crisis.

Google Steps up to Help out: Swift Implementation of Resources Online

One Google employee who experienced the earthquake from his offices in Tokyo, Japan, recalls a time when there wasn't online access to information during natural disasters, and the importance of it now ( Google.org post, March 12):

As someone who experienced the Kobe earthquake 16 years ago when I was at university, I cannot forget the immediate desire for information. There was no way to find out where people's family and friends were, if transportation would be available to get us home, and most importantly, whether we would be able to find shelter.

This experience helped me remember that during a crisis, information about shelters can become increasingly muddled. Together with our Google Crisis Response team, we decided to organize existing public information from local governments about the concerned areas.

In the post, author Ken Miura outlines the immediate resources Google provided in the aftermath of the recent 'quake. Within just one hour, Google created Google Person Finder. This tool allows people to post information about someone they are either looking for or have information about, who is missing from the natural disaster. As of March 15, nearly 200,000 records are being tracked. The Google Person Finder tool can be embedded into any website.

Another resource provided by Google is the Crisis Response information page . This page was also created very quickly by Google after the disaster to provide important contact information, updates about developments, shelters, blackouts, maps and much more. Google also leveraged its Google Earth and Google Maps team to provide satellite imagery for areas affected by the Japan natural disaster to the public and response teams, in order to aid their efforts.

Google LatLong Images of Japan

After the Earthquake: Worldwide Communications via Social Media

While Google created resources, Facebook served as a catalyst for people to engage in conversation and share information. According to a post by ZDNet.com, the Facebook Data Team put together maps to show how news of the natural disaster spread across the world via Facebook.

ZDNet/Facebook Data Team

Several Facebook pages were created to help people stay up-to-date and to organize relief efforts. Mashable.com reported from the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, that the founder of Explore.org will donate up to a dollar to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation for every "Like" the Dog Bless You Facebook page receives. This organization helps find people trapped underneath rubble as a consequence of a disaster.

Many other Facebook pages have cropped up to share information and aid in relief efforts, such as the Japan Earthquake page and the Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support page.

A report from ComputerWorld.com shows that within an hour of the earthquake, more than 1,000 tweets related to the Japan earthquake on Twitter were sent out, not only conveying words of encouragement, but also important contact information and updates about the developments on the ground.

Twitter hashtags such as #japan were created for people to easily share and access information about developments. The UNDispatch.com posted a list the day of the earthquake that contained a list of Twitter hashtags and people to follow who were actively reporting on the Japan disaster.

Bruce Clay Japan Employee Creates Community for Those in Need

At Bruce Clay Japan, staff reported that they were all safe, family included. The overwhelming situation didn't stop one employee, Taku Amano, from using the power of the Internet and social media to help encourage everyone and provide an extra outlet for communication.

"After the earthquake, we lost communication methods for a while -- except the Internet," says Amano. "Meanwhile, many of my friends from overseas were sending me messages about how much they care and were worried. So I wanted to make a website to inform people from overseas how we, the Japanese people, are holding up under this tragedy. At the same time, I wanted to deliver the thoughtful messages that were coming in from all over the world to the people who are suffering."

Amano created the site Operation-Tomodachi.jp (not to be confused with the United States military operation for disaster relief of the same name). The site pulls all the tweets from the hashtags #prayforjapan and #helpjapan on Twitter, and congregates them into one place.

"'Tomodachi' means 'friends' in Japanese. When I heard that U.S. military named its Japan aid initiative, 'Operation Tomodachi,' I was so touched," says Amano. "The earthquakes and the tsunami tore us apart, but there is still a big bond through love, partnership, caring and fortitude among us. We will definitely make it out from this disaster with the help of so many friendships around the world."

Operation-Tomodachi.jp also shows the most recent activity on the Operation Tomodachi Facebook page that Amano set up as well. The Facebook page encourages people to share what they are experiencing during the natural disaster through stories, pictures and more.

Operation Tomodachi Facebook

Amano talks about social media in times of crisis being the "lifeline communication tool," allowing people to easily connect with family and friends. He says there are currently around 2.5 million Facebook users and 20 million Twitter users in Japan. He expects the number will increase in the aftermath of the natural disaster. "Through social networks like Twitter and Facebook, I've seen so many wonderful stories that have so much power to encourage people during these times," says Amano. "I wanted to share the support Japan is receiving. It has such a powerful impact. This is why created the community and website."

"The situation remains tense and unpredictable," says Amano. "But we will be united, and won't give up."


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