Thousands of Japanese are dead and many more missing, following the earthquake and tsunami on March 11. Hundreds of thousands more are homeless or in temporary shelters, and millions in Japan and around the world are desperate to make contact with loved ones.
Mobile phones and the web are proving their worth, becoming something like a giant bulletin board – helping people share information about where they are, their condition and what’s most needed. As in the Haiti disaster, such crowd-sourcing tools are proving particularly effective when local Internet access is spotty.
For example, “Ushahidi” – an ongoing open-source project – allows users to send information via mobile devices, then sorts and collects the data, often searchable on a mash-up map. The Japan Ushahidi, hosted by sinsai, has thousands of posts, sorted into categories such as “Hazard Zone,” “Medical Help”and “Trusted Reports” among others.
Other crowd-sourced tools are the ICRC’s “Family Links” site and (as earlier noted) Google’s “Person Finder” for Japan – both offering services in English and Japanese. “Crisis Commons,” another crowd-sourced wiki, is providing an expanding number of links and services for these and many other help-sites.
While it’s true much of the web’s infrastructure has been destroyed in northeastern Japan, the nature of the web, says CSIS senior fellow James Lewis, is decentralized – which makes it perfect for surviving a disaster. Lewis spoke with our colleague Kate Woodsome about the lessons Japan has to teach regarding the web and crisis response – you can hear the complete interview here:
That said, when it comes to relaying accurate information, social media and the Internet can be less than reliable. Perhaps nowhere has that lesson been clearer than with the “radiation text” and email that have been circulating across Asia for days now.
“Japan Government confirms radiation leak at Fukushima nuclear plants. Asian countries should take necessary precautions” the phony text begins, supposedly coming from no less a news source than the BBC. Problem is, the text is fake – it’s not true, as the BBC itself has confirmed.
Fake or not, that hasn’t kept it from panicking people as far away as the Philippines and Singapore. Bad information travels as fast as good, particularly when people are scared and desperate for news.
Still, bloggers are working to help news media bat down this and other incorrect rumors or hoaxes. Global Voices Online has collected the work of a number of science bloggers as they try to explain what is happening at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant – and what could happen.
VOA has created a special page on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami collecting the work of many journalists tracking these and other ongoing stories. As always, we will continue to update this blog throughout the crises.