Japan crisis showcases social media's muscle
By Steve Sternberg, USA TODAY
April 11, 2011___________________________________________________________________________________
Nine days after Japan's catastrophic earthquake, two urgent pleas for help appeared on the Twitter stream of U.S. Ambassador John Roos:
"Kameda hospital in Chiba needs to transfer 80 patients from Kyoritsu hospital in Iwaki city, just outside of 30km(sic) range."
"Some of them are seriously ill and they need air transport. If US military can help, pls contact (name withheld) at Kameda."
The back-to-back tweets lit up Roos' mobile phone at 4 p.m. local time. Each was tagged with @AmbassadorRoos, his Twitter address, instantly sending a digital SOS to the top U.S. diplomat in Japan. A year ago, before Roos opened his Twitter account, getting his attention in such a direct, immediate way would not have been possible.
ESRI MAP: Social media and Japan earthquake
"The thing about Twitter is that it's so public," says Matt Fuller, the ambassador's chief aide. "You can see all the feeds directed at the ambassador. If he doesn't see them, I'm next to him pointing them out, saying, 'Here's some actionable information.' "
Japan's disaster has spotlighted the critical role that social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube and Skype increasingly are playing in responses to crises around the world. They may have been designed largely for online socializing and fun, but such sites and others have empowered people caught up in crises and others wanting to help to share vivid, unfiltered images, audio and text reports before governments or more traditional media can do so.
"Often, it's not the experts who know something, it's someone in the crowd," says Sree Sreenivasan, a social media specialist at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
As the Japanese continue the struggle to cool their nuclear reactors' molten cores and take stock of the devastation, the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, the San Diego State University Immersive Visualization Center and officials from more than a dozen other countries — including Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Greece and Israel — recently carried out a global social-media exercise called X-24 Europe.
The exercise was designed to harness the power of social media in a crisis scenario much like Japan's disaster. During the X-24 exercise, a simulated earthquake struck in the Adriatic Sea and propelled a tsunami ashore in Montenegro.
Japan's plight has highlighted the urgent need to prepare for such events, says Chris Maxin, a geologist and X-24's coordinator.
"The videos coming out of Japan really drive home the dangers we're facing," he says.
The emergency managers and military officers who planned X-24 say the idea was to tap the potential of social media to create video and text channels of communication that offer more immediacy and flexibility than the standard command-and-control operation anchored in a government war room. This new model for emergency response relies on "volunteer technical communities" of software developers, social media monitors and field volunteers, says Heather Blanchard, a founder of CrisisCommons, a group established to cultivate such efforts and support emergency agencies worldwide.
Working online from locations around the globe they meet via video, audio and text on Skype, in what they call "virtual emergency operations centers" and carry out countless tasks critical to the rescue and response effort. They hone their programming skills at computer "hackathons" — digital retreats designed to produce solutions to crisis communications and data management challenges — held by such dissimilar groups as "Random Hacks of Kindness," sponsored by social media players including Microsoft and Google, and the Naval Postgraduate School.
"We're trying to reconceptualize emergency response around resources that didn't exist five years ago," says Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), a leading proponent of social media. "Nobody invented Twitter to be an emergency messaging or disaster tool. It was developed for an entirely different purpose."
It's Leysia Palen's job to explore the impact of social media during mass emergencies. Palen, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, is the director of Project EPIC, a program begun two years ago with $2.8 million from the National Science Foundation to analyze how social media are used, and by whom, in global crises.
During just the last year or so, Palen says, volunteers using social media sites have played pivotal roles in responses to various types of global crises, from the BP Horizon oil spill to the unrest in the Middle East to the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Japan.
In Japan, it took just two brief messages of about 100 letters each, to alert Roos to the plight of 80 patients at Kyoritsu Hospital, 27 miles from the near meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
When the earthquake struck, Kyoritsu had 650 patients in its beds. All but the sickest had been released or transferred. Kameda Medical Center in Chibu, a 950-bed, resort-style hospital that courts wealthy medical tourists, had agreed to take the rest. But with the Fukushima reactors leaking radiation, no trucker or ambulance driver would get close. The hospital was running out of food and medical supplies.
Overwhelmed local authorities took no apparent notice. Hospital director Nobuo Hiwatashi issued an appeal through the Mainichi Japan newspaper. Still no response.
Officials at Kameda turned to Roos. The ambassador alerted the U.S. Embassy's defense attache, who passed it down through the U.S. military chain of command, says Fuller, Roos' aide. An hour or so later, Fuller says, "we got a note back," saying the patients would be evacuated by Japan's Ground Self-Defense Forces.
Two tweets had mobilized troops.
Volunteers are breaking stereotypes
Christine Thompson was asleep in her home in Boydton, Va., when her phone rang at 2:14 a.m. on March 11. The caller told Thompson, a founder of a social media crisis-response team called Humanity Road, that an earthquake had struck off the coast of Japan. Widely scattered volunteers were gathering on Skype to set up an "virtual emergency operations center." Thompson logged in.
A longtime employee of Verizon who plans to retire soon, Thompson — who also volunteers for the American Red Cross— understands communications. She helped her sister, Cat Graham, also a Red Cross volunteer, establish an Internet cafe in Lawrenceville, Ga., after Hurricane Katrina. Thompson also helped set up an emergency operations center in the Haitian embassy in Washington after a third founder, lawyer Cary Mitchell who was at the embassy, found Thompson tweeting as "RedCrossMom" and recruited her to help.
Within two hours of the Japan earthquake alert, Thompson's team seized on a Tweet from a housewife in Japan who reported that the roof of a school gym in Kokubunzi had collapsed, with students trapped inside.
The Tweet came so soon after the disaster that Humanity Road volunteers were unable to raise any first responders in Japan near enough to the scene to help. But a subsequent search revealed that helicopters were hovering overhead soon after the roof collapse. Newspaper coverage revealed that 16 people had been injured, none seriously. All were rescued.
"Most of the time we never get any feedback on whether our efforts helped or hindered," Thompson says. That doesn't deter Humanity Road volunteers, who work round-the-clock shifts because few people severely injured in a major disaster last longer than 48 hours, she says.
Palen of the University of Colorado says Humanity Road reflects an unexpected dimension of social media. She unearthed their network during a study of more than 70 million Haiti earthquake tweets. She tracked down the members, interviewed many of them and found that 75% are women with an average age of 40, far from the stereotype of highly connected Twitterati.
"The stereotypes are changing," Palen says. "They're going to be changing fast."
Other social media groups formed in equally unexpected ways. One whose approach has played a pivotal role in Japan is Ushahidi, Swahili for witness, formed to track political violence during the 2007 elections. The group's founders, Kenyan bloggers and a software developer, created an "open-street map" platform that enables digital volunteers to create maps for first responders in disaster zones.
Ushahidi got its first big test after the Haiti earthquake. Patrick Meier, then a Tufts University foreign affairs grad student who helped Ushahidi get seed money, decided he couldn't sit by and watch the tragedy unfold. "I couldn't keep watching," he says. "I had to do something."
Meier put out a call for volunteers. They began creating a crisis map in his Boston apartment.
"We were all crammed into my living room," he says. "It was snowing outside. Here we were on a live Skype call with search-and-rescue teams in Port-au-Prince."
Soon the Marine Corps and Coast Guard were using the program to stage relief efforts. The World Food Program sent Meier's team a list of displaced-person camps along with a request for GPS coordinates so volunteers could locate them.
In Japan, Meier says, colleagues familiar with the Ushahidi approach launched their own crisis map "within a couple of hours." It may be the largest crisis map ever created, containing more than 8,000 reports from social media detailing such items as shelters, food stores, open gas stations, road closures, building damage assessments and cellphone charging centers, he says. "They had it all down, and organized. They knew how to use the software and the links. That was not the case in Haiti."
Companies step up to help
Volunteer first responders aren't the only ones who use social media during emergencies. The rest of us do too, according to a poll released in March by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Within days of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, 64% of blog links, 32% of Twitter news links and the top 20 YouTube videos carried news and information about the crisis in Japan, the center says.
As many as 4 billion people worldwide — and 84% of Americans — now use mobile phones worldwide, according to a United Nations report released in March and the Pew survey. Social media companies have transformed themselves not only to accommodate this traffic, but to help out.
Within an hour of the Japanese earthquake, Google's crisis response team — launched after the disaster in Haiti — had posted a "Person Finder" website that quickly grew to include 450,000 records, says Jamie Yood, of Google. "If you're looking for someone, you can post, 'Hey, my cousin is a teacher in Sendai, we're looking for him. Someone else will post, "I've seen him in a shelter; he's fine."
Google engineers also developed a software program that enables people to take snapshots of the lists of names posted on the walls of Japanese homeless shelters and scan them into Person Finder, thus entering thousands of survivors' names into a searchable database, Yood says. Person Finder also incorporates names that were once scattered through many other missing-persons databases.
YouTube, which is owned by Google, created its own video person finder. More people than ever access the videos on mobile phones, says spokeswoman Annie Baxter. Now about 200 million people a day watch videos on their mobile phones, triple the number of a year ago, she says.
"In Japan, we've had the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) take to YouTube to get their messages out," Baxter says. "It's going where your audience is. In the week following the earthquake and tsunami, people viewed more than 40 million (disaster-related) items."
Twitter's traffic is just as eye-popping, says spokesman Matt Graves. "Right now, on any given day, people are sending 140 million messages," he says, "a billion tweets every eight days."
After the earthquake, Twitter proved more reliable than e-mail or phones, says Daisuke Kitagawa, 35, a Tokyo-based software engineer, who lived in New York during 9/11 and wasn't surprised when his cellphone and e-mail service stopped.
"Twitter helped me the best," Kitagawa said via e-mail. "I'm attached to a tight community of specialists in Japan. We shared important information. Facebook did not work during the disaster," because digital networks were down or overloaded.
Adding speed and volume
Already, the volume of information unleashed by people using social media has begun to overtake traditional emergency managers, who are used to running their disaster-response efforts from centralized war rooms and drawing from reports updated every few hours.
As workers raced to contain the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant, more than 100 U.S. emergency managers gathered in Washington, D.C., at a brainstorming session they organized to look for new ways to use social media to save lives.
Compared with social media, information moves at a relative snail's pace even in today's post-9/11 war rooms, with their vast Internet bandwidth and huge TV screens, says Blanchard, a former deputy director of the U.S. government's preparedness website, www.ready.gov.
"Currently, situation reports aren't real-time," she says. "They can be up to six to eight hours old."
Social media can bridge that gap, she says, but first emergency managers must overcome longstanding hurdles, such as policies that restrict them from acting on information that doesn't flow from official sources.
FEMA administrator Fugate says this has to change. "We've got to stop looking at the public as a liability and start looking at them as a resource," Fugate says. What makes social media so different than other emergency response tools, he says, is that it "allows a two-way conversation in the impact zone, so that we can link people with information, resources and ideas."
In some cases, intelligence gleaned from social media also can be used to avert tragedies remotely related to a catastrophic event.
For example, news that the Fukushima reactors were leaking radiation triggered a scare throughout Southeast Asia, says Sari Setiogi, of the World Health Organization. By monitoring Twitter, she says, "we learned that people were drinking liquid iodine, the wound cleaner, because they were panicked about radiation."
Setiogi says they were making the potentially deadly error of substituting tincture of iodine for potassium iodide tablets, which do protect the thyroid from radioactive iodine. To make matters worse, radiation at the time posed no real threat to the Tweeters.
"We posted on Facebook, 'Do not drink wound cleaner iodine, because it won't protect you from radiation and it can poison you." Soon, she said, the number of tweets advising people to drink iodine began to drop off.
"Then people began tweeting: 'You're kidding. You're really drinking liquid iodine?' "
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