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How Effective was Crisis Mapping During the 2011 Japan Earthquake?

BY Julia Wetherell | Thursday, March 7 2013

A house floats near Sendai, Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami (Wikimedia Commons).

The March 2011 earthquake in Japan had a debilitating impact on infrastructure, and took a devastating cost in human life. Response to the disaster and the road to recovery were aided significantly by a wide range of communications systems. As in many disaster situations before and since, several crisis-mapping efforts immediately took off, filling in information gaps for survivors and providing a picture to the international community.  Two years later, how useful were these maps to disaster response?

Compared to similar efforts put to use in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, not as consistently. The volunteers behind 4636 – the Ushahidi crisis map that enabled Haitian earthquake victims to broadcast disaster conditions via text – formed a significant portion of the humanitarian response to the quake. Yet crisis mapping in the immediate aftermath of the Japan earthquake, including an Ushahidi map of Twitter reports, Sinsai.info, was not as critical to response.   

“Connecting the Last Mile: The Role of Communications in the Great East Japan Earthquake,” is a new report from Internews, a NGO that supports local media organizations worldwide.  Based on surveys and interviews with survivors, Japanese media groups, and academics, among others, the report evaluates the efficacy of communications systems both hi-tech and lo-tech during and after the earthquake.  Like the recently released Code of Conduct for SMS Disaster Response from the GSMA, it also makes suggestions for future best practices. 

While the report finds that traditional media, in particularly emergency radio broadcast stations, were particularly useful to earthquake victims, it is inconclusive on the overall impact of crisis maps.  On the subject of Sinsai.info, it notes that, “none of the survivors interviewed during field research in Miyagi and Iwate [two Japanese prefectures impacted by the earthquake] were aware of this crisis map.” The accessibility of crisis mapping was also dependent on the availability of Internet service, which was often cut out – strengthening of IT infrastructure, particularly in less connected rural areas, was one suggestion of the report.

The most effective crisis map to come out of the Japan earthquake has been more useful in the long-term recovery process.  Safecast, a global map of environmental radiation measurements which was created a week after the quake, has since become “the biggest radiation monitoring project in the world,” with 3.5 million data points.  

The Internews report notes that, as relatively advanced emergency services were already in place in Japan, earthquake victims were more likely to turn to these rather than more crowd-based online resources. 

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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