The Web Reacts to a Tsunami – pt. II

Posted March 16th, 2011 at 2:02 pm (UTC-4)

Online Information – Good and Bad – About Japan’s Crises

As Japan responds to multiple and worsening crises, the Internet is proving to be a helpful, but  sometimes confounding, tool.

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.

Screen-grab of the Ushahidi map and reports on March 16

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.

2 responses to “The Web Reacts to a Tsunami – pt. II”

  1. m_thomas says:

    This article is accurate, and it taught me of new sites to explore. The instant and open nature of the web spawned what we call “social networking” in an almost organic way – and it continues to evolve and have a life of its own. The major news sites now are attempting to incorporate live interaction features also. Reuters, for example, is experimenting with a live-feed approach with a vertical scroll of Reuter headlines, user-supplied links to outside news reports, along with user questions and answers. Its viewer base is educated and articulate. But the problem seems to have become one of preventing the page from turning into a twitter feed of one and two word sentences, instead of remaining the information resource it was (my opinion).

    In passing, I must confess that the role of photography has found its voice and place in this tragedy. The high caliber photos that have appeared across media from AP, Getty, Reuters, AFP and others are truly world-class – shocking, tragic and unforgettable. When I read, I think. But when I see photos of babies scanned for radiation, I cry (and besides praying and sending a donation to a relief fund, I have done much of that).

    God bless the Japanese – and God bless all of us. WE ARE ALL ONE.

    – Michael T Bucci

  2. Doug Bernard says:

    Michael – thanks so much for the contribution!

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