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Google, Internet Prove Helpful In Aftermath Of Quake

March 18, 2011

When Japan’s devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake began last Friday afternoon, engineers at Google’s Tokyo offices were initially undaunted. But as the disaster unfolded, and the scope of the tragedy became clear, they contacted Google.org, Google’s philanthropic unit, to suggest it play a role in the emergency response as it had after the recent earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and New Zealand.

Within an hour, as aftershocks shook the capital city, the “ËœJapan Person Finder’ website was up and running, and being promoted worldwide on Google’s main search page.

The site, which allows people to search for and post information about missing loved ones, had been viewed 30 million times within 36 hours of its launch.  Indeed, almost a week later, usage remains constant with no signs of slowing.

The site now contains records on some quarter of a million people — more than the combined total of similar sites Google established after the Haiti, Chile and New Zealand quakes.

“This is by far the biggest response we’ve seen yet,” said Jamie Yood, spokesman for Google.org, in an interview with the Telegraph.

Google is known for giving its engineers what it calls “20% time”, which allows them to work on side projects that interest them one day a week.  It was that arrangement that launched Google’s original Person Finder site, upon which the Japan Person Finder was based.

“We think it’s fair to say that, in disaster areas, technology can help save lives,” Yood said.

In addition to depending upon public and aid agencies to provide information, Google.org has also encouraged Japan’s temporary shelters to assist in the initiative.  On the wall of each shelter is a list of each guest, along with additional personal details. 

Using Optical Character Recognition software, Google.org has been able to convert mobile phone pictures of the lists to text data for upload to the Japan Person Finder.

Tales of how the site has helped to put minds at ease are slowly beginning to emerge.   Kei Kawai, a senior product manager at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters, located his grandfather-in-law, who lived in one of the small coastal towns hard hit by the tsunami.

However, the service is not without its faults.  The family of Brian Hickebottom, a British teacher near Sendai, were distraught by a “sick” message posted on his page after he was listed as missing in media reports.

“Lucas A’s” message read: “I have received information that this person is dead.”

Mr. Hickebottom later emailed his sister in Britain to confirm he was safe, and was at a shelter at his school along with his wife and daughter.

“That’s really frustrating for us because were have to rely on people to supply correct information,” Yood said.

Google.org said it will likely not verify posts to Person Finder sites because the goal is to collect and disseminate as much information as possible.  Instead, it will rely upon users to report false or incorrect postings.

The success of Google’s People Finder site would not have been possible were it not for the resilience of Japan’s Internet infrastructure, which withstood both the tragic quake and the ensuing tsunami.

An oft-repeated myth about the Internet, which originated from a RAND Corporation study on U.S. military voice networks in 1964, is that it was designed to withstand a nuclear war.  However, no such invulnerability was ever sought by the creators of ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet.  They did, however, intend to build a network of networks that would be resilient as a whole, even if parts of it failed.

The success of that initiative meant that Japanese broadband networks have been more helpful than fixed and mobile phone lines in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Japan’s network infrastructure, including high-capacity fiber optic cables and high speed routers, was virtually unaffected by the quake and tsunami, according to RIPE, a group that facilitates technical development of the Internet.

The organization measured around two percent fewer blocks of Japanese Internet addresses after the earthquake, although “changes of this magnitude are quite normal on the internet”.

“This observation is by no means indicative of the earthquake impacting internet operations”¦ [and] serves to highlight the resilience of the internet,” the group said.

The degree of resilience of the Internet meant that while broadband lines hit by the tsunami may have been cut, the national network nevertheless survived.

Similarly, there was only minor damage to some of the 20 undersea cables that connect Japanese networks to the rest of the world.  Furthermore, while fixed and mobile phone networks were flooded by people attempting to contact loved ones in Japan, Internet traffic, including services such as Skype, remained up and running.

In addition to its Person Finder site, Google has also included a link on its homepage to a Crisis Response website, which includes Person Finder, maps, news updates and a list of relief organizations collecting donations to benefit the people of Japan.

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