Analysis and paper presented at TechCamp Jakarta on social media use after the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan

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The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake: Technology and Its Application During the Response

On March 11, 2011, what would later be named the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake (東日本大震災) struck the northeast coast of Japan. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered what would eventually become a three-fold disaster, in which the earthquake itself was not the worst crisis. Rather, the subsequent tsunami waves would be responsible for most of the devastation, and the subsequent nuclear plant failures would be the cause of more prolonged fear.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, mobile phone service was down in many areas. However, Internet service was largely unaffected in areas where the infrastructure did not sustain heavy damage. So, in that moment of crisis, while many people could not make phonecalls, they could (for the most part) access the Internet. In a disaster situation, where time is a critical factor and information is the most valuable asset, the ability to share news and communicate with others is vital. At a citizen level, people needed to be able to find out the status of their loved ones; at a government level, people needed to have accurate, on-the-ground information. And, as always during a massive humanitarian crisis, NGOs needed to be able to deliver supplies and assistance where they were needed. In the absence of other communication technologies, social media platforms became lifelines for both internal and external communication.

Technological Landscape and Initial Response

If there is any country that would likely be the best prepared for an earthquake/tsunami combination, it would be Japan. Due to its position on the volatile Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan is certainly accustomed to plenty of seismic activity, but it is also a very technologically-connected society. Figures from 2009 showed that the rate of mobile phone possession in Japanese households was 92.5%. Since the mobile phone was first introduced in 1979, it has become an essential tool for people of all ages in Japan. According to Japan's Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, about 75 million people used their mobile phones to access the Internet in 2008, accounting for 82% of individual Internet users. Additionally, Japan ranks second in the world in terms of global high-speed broadband.

In the days shortly following the disaster, mobile voice service was spotty, but data service was slightly better. In addition, many WiFi providers opened up their service to those who needed it. People responded to the resource constraints and took to social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Mixi to be informed about what was going on and where other people were. It was calculated that shortly after impact, 1,200 tweets per minute were coming out of the capital of Tokyo. While the world outside Japan had learned of the disaster and were responding using #tsunami and #prayforjapan hashtags, Twitter users within the country were using #Jishin (for general earthquake info), #J_j_helpme (for rescue or aid), #Hinan (for evacuation information), #Anpi (for confirmation of safety of individuals and places), and #311care (for medical information).

Groups of crisis mappers sprung into action and launched online resources, searching through publicly available information and mapping it to geolocations. (see Exhibit A) Using teams of volunteers, mappers were able to show the locations of rescue requests, evacuation centers, medical care, transportation, and goods. For locating loved ones, Google quickly launched Person Finder, where people could seek

information on friends and family. The ability to rapidly access and transmit information in the face of the crisis made the Internet indispensible in those critical days and hours.

Government Communications

In the first three minutes after the first shock of the earthquake, the Japan Meteorological Agency started issuing tsunami warning messages, disseminating information on expected wave height and arrival. Similarly, local governments were sending warning messages via siren and community wireless systems. Many of these warnings were critical to allow people to have a chance to evacuate to higher ground. In a massive disaster, quick, appropriate reactions from government can make a great difference in the efficacy of assistance and disaster management. The ability of a government to respond can either mitigate the devastating effects of natural disasters or exacerbate the severity of humanitarian conditions.

The Japanese government had a preparedness plan in place that was partially borne out of the 1995 Great Hanshin Awaji (Kobe) Earthquake. Since then, the government has continued an education program to drill the citizens on what to do during an earthquake or tsunami. However, preparedness is only one piece of the response; the other piece is timely, relevant, transparent communication with the public.

Not long after the disaster began, the Twitter account for the Prime Minister of Japan (@kantei_saigai), Naoto Kan, was sending out tweets regarding the quake and subsequent events, including evacuations, press conferences, and general relief information. Within a week of the disaster, the Office of the Prime Minister started an English version of the same account (@JPN_PMO) to disseminate information to the mass of English-speaking people who were completely engaged in the unfolding crisis coverage. The English Twitter account gained 16,000 followers in a short amount of time, and a Facebook account also followed. However, Naoto Kan, was not new to social media as a communication tool. Since late 2010, he has maintained a personal blog, “Looking Squarely at the Future” , in which he shares his thoughts with the public. Though he was silent on his blog for more than one month following the triplicate disaster, he finally broke silence on April 13 (see Exhibit B). Following the lead of the national government, some municipalities in northeast Japan started Twitter accounts after the disaster struck to communicate specific, localized information to residents regarding services, rolling blackouts, etc.

Social network applications certainly assisted the flow of information between the Japanese government and its people, though that was only one stream of information. The communications between disaster victims and other victims, as well as those with the international community, provided unfiltered feedback and real-time information for the government and NGOs.

Prevalence of Particular Social Media Networks

While Twitter and Facebook proved to be massively helpful for communicating with people outside of Japan, Mixi, Japan’s largest social network, proved to be extremely effective for Japanese citizens to communicate information amongst themselves. In Japan, Mixi is dominant with 10 times the number of users as Facebook. By comparison, Twitter has experienced a much more rapid, fluid adoption rate than Facebook, as Twitter users have grown to about half of Mixi’s figures. So what accounts for the cultural preference for Mixi? Or Twitter, for that matter?

Country-by-country variations in preference of social network sites can be related to a combination of many factors: the first-mover advantage gained by one platform, the availability of local language support and content, and the often complex human factors of design in the layout of the social media platform. Even if localized content is available, it must have authenticity and relevance. Even if an application is incredibly successful in one country, it doesn’t follow that it will be replicable elsewhere.

In Japan, the preference of users for Mixi and Twitter seems to be linked to the different ways Japanese users approach interaction online. Privacy considerations have always been important in Japan, and the fact that Mixi is only available in the Japanese language, is closed to those without a Japanese cellphone number, and allows for substantial anonymity aligns with the cultural values of Japan. People react to subtle features of websites, such as colors (and their meaning), aesthetic layout, avatars, language support, and more. In the case of Twitter, its impressive adoption has been largely due to the simplicity and extensibility of its platform. Its 140-character limit speaks to the Japanese reverence for simplicity in language expression (e.g. haiku poems). And yet, 140 characters go much farther in Japanese than they do in English, since one character in Japanese can be equal to several characters or a whole word in English. (Interestingly, some people have tested the equivalent of 140 characters in English to be 260 characters in Japanese. ) Placed in the context of socio-cultural preferences, one can see why Japanese citizens have embraced Mixi and Twitter, especially in the times of crisis recently, and why it was critical for organizations to utilize these resources as well.

Lessons Learned for Future Crisis Responses

Social media and technology are playing an increasingly important role in disaster relief, correlating with the increasing role they are playing in our everyday lives. Access to real-time information and on-the-ground reports have given governments and NGOs new tools with which to perform their work, and given new tools of situational awareness to disaster victims.

Currently, there is a viral aspect to the mobile movement in disaster relief, one that taps into our core empathetic tendencies as humans. As seen in previous crises like the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes and the Pakistan floods of 2010, the ability to donate to humanitarian organizations via text message (e.g., texting “redcross” to 90999 would send $10 to the Red Cross) allowed for simple crowdsourcing of aid for Japan as well. The application of mobile technology can help deliver critical information, aggregate data, facilitate citizen journalism, redirect resources to where they are most vitally needed, and identify bottlenecks in systems. With social media, every mobile device becomes a potential lifeline, a way to call for help, a way to share information, a way to donate money, a way to connect.

The challenge of effectively harnessing the power of technology and social media in the context of disaster response lies in channeling the rapid knowledge into focused action. As always, there is the chance of receiving incorrect information, which means that social media users must be vigilant about data quality. Good communication is essential to effective coordination, but in a social system we are all reliant to some extent on the other members. Therefore, conversations must always be two-way conversations. Admittedly, the Japanese government was overwhelmed by the scale of the disasters and often failed to demonstrate the level of transparency that people will demand from governments during a crisis response. However, this is an adjustment that many organizations (governmental and non-governmental) are still making, learning to adapt to real, two-way conversations with populations. We must be able to take lessons learned from each individual disaster and incorporate those into relief efforts going forward.


 Global Market Information Database; 
 Asian Disaster Reduction Center (ADRC). “Great East Japan Earthquake: Preliminary Observations”, April 2011.
 Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Disaster Relief 2.0:The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies. Washington, D.C. and Berkshire, UK: UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, 2011.

Media:TechCamp Jakarta.docx See Also: Lifeline Phone Service