Japan: An earthquake, a tsunami – and a handwritten newspaper

15 March, 2013
A rescue worker uses a two-way radio transceiver during heavy snowfall at a factory area devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, northern Japan, 16 March 2011. Credit: REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON, courtesy The Thomson REUTERS Foundation - ALERTNET
A rescue worker uses a two-way radio transceiver during heavy snowfall at a factory area devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, northern Japan, 16 March 2011. Credit: REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON, courtesy The Thomson REUTERS Foundation - ALERTNET

When one of the most technologically sophisticated countries in the world is hit by a triple emergency, should we count on web platforms and social media to deliver lifesaving information? Not necessarily, according to a new report by Internews into the communications aspects of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan.  

Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the planet.

But on March 12th 2011, nobody in the Ishinomaki area was tweeting, blogging, emailing or posting anything on facebook. They weren’t even watching TV. Hit by a 9.0 earthquake followed by a massive tsunami, the power in Ishinomaki was out.

So instead of their usual high-tech operation, local newspaper reporters went back a few decades in time and produced a handwritten newspaper.

“People were so hungry for information,” says editor Hiroyuki Takeuchi. “If there is no information after a disaster, people become even more stressed and anxious.”

To meet the desperate need for information, Takeuchi’s reporters went out on foot to talk to survivors and those providing aid, then came back and handwrote their reports, including the latest on where and how to get help, on giant pieces of paper, which were then taped to the walls of evacuation centres.

The story of Takeuchi and his paper, HibiShimbun, is told in a new report from media NGO Internews, which analyses the role of communications in the March 11th disaster. The study, which was supported by the OCHA Japan team, starts with the frantic first hours and describes the challenges of providing vital information in one of the most complex emergencies of recent times.

It is a story of how phones, web platforms and social media are coming of age as an essential service for the survivors of emergencies. The most widely used family reunification service, for example, was not provided by the government, Red Cross or an NGO but by Google: three months after the disaster, over 610,000 personal records of survivors and those missing had been uploaded. On social media, twitter in particular saw usage skyrocket as survivors turned to their platform for realtime information. Immediately after the quake, 11,000 tweets per minute were sent (the normal average for Japan is 3,000) and both the Prime Minister’s office and the owner of the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant established twitter feeds for the first time within days of the disaster. The report finds that social media and web-based platforms were used for everything from publicising government advice to crowdsourcing and mapping radiation levels, but that most of the people affected used social media to connect with family and friends.

The study also shows why, even in such a highly connected country, technology is only part of the answer. When networks fail, power systems collapse and any surviving networks are overloaded, so people turn to older models that are tried and trusted. Internews found that again and again, interviewees talked about the importance of radio, especially local community radio. This wasn’t just a matter of system failure: one of the most significant demographic groups affected, the elderly, were unfamiliar with online information networks and social media.

Another key part of the story, as the HibiShimbun story illustrates, is that people in Japan wanted information that was of direct use to them rather than generalised advice. They wanted details of services, support and hazards in the areas where they were living or sheltering. The people who were best placed to meet those needs – local responders, NGOs and volunteers – stepped up. In the city of Tome, the mayor spoke every day on community radio station H@! FM (founded specificially in anticipation of a major earthquake) providing updates on the availability of food and water. Local people visited the station to provide information: a doctor came in tell people where medical supplies were available, and shop owners provided updates when they were able to restock. Two years on, H@! FM still broadcasts updates on reconstruction.

The central, common thread connecting the communications initiatives captured in this report is trust. In Tome, there was no need to worry about verification of content as all the speakers on H@! FM were local and known. This echoes a key lesson for policy makers in future emergencies: in emergencies, people reach for what they know, they understand and they trust. For the young, their personal and social networks increasingly function through social media and phones, making these platforms increasingly important. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people turned immediately to Google People Finder to search for family and friends suggests such tools, developed by the private sector, are on their way to becoming standard platforms for basic humanitarian tasks like reuniting families.

Another lesson of the report is the speed with which disasters drive innovation. The Office of the Prime Minister was placed under enormous public pressure to start a twitter feed, while TV stations began livestreaming their material after a teenage student began using his iphone camera to livestream TV channel NHK (which was technically illegal).

It is therefore not surprising, that the recommendations for responders include investing in understanding local information ecologies, building provision for information and communications work into response planning and learning how to work with the tech sector – both private companies and the tech volunteer community. 

One of the most interesting aspects of this report is the extent to which patterns around information and communications mirror those in less developed countries. In the first hours after a disaster, people everywhere want to reconnect with their families. Japan might be one of the  most technologically advanced countries in the world, but just like in Haiti, some of the most important information initiatives came down to community radio stations, handwritten newspaper headlines.

The report concludes with details of how the Japanese government is already acting on some of the lessons: maintaining twitter feeds, improving tsunami prediction capacity and working with mobile phone companies to ensure blanket access to SMS alerts. It is surely time for the humanitarian system to do the same.

More>>  OCHA Japan  -  Connecting the Last Mile: The Role of Communications in the Great East Japan Earthquake





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