Friday, March 25, 2011

Natural Disasters and how Social Media responded

Natural disasters are a terrible occurrence, and two huge earthquakes in as many months is a reminder of how unstable and unpredictable our environment can be at times. The most recent, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake not far from the coast of Japan early Friday morning on March 11th, certainly gave me a personal pause for thought.

Having a number of friends living and working throughout Japan led me to dive on to Twitter and Facebook with vigour that morning and within two hours, much to my relief, I had worked my way down my list with one case of concussion and a few power cuts and swaying buildings between them but in the grand scheme of things, a good outcome.

Without social media and the communication capabilities we have at our fingertips today, rather than a mere two hours it could’ve been more like two days, or even two weeks before hearing anything back. With the Japanese government advising reduced phone use at the time and rolling blackouts across the country, other methods of communication exploded; Tweet-o-meter reported peaks of 1,200 tweets per minute coming from Tokyo alone, after the countries phone system was taken offline.

As other countries began to wake up, news began to spread and updates travelled exponentially, with users sharing reports and video streams, more often than not, faster than official news sources could verify and update. Mitchell Cuevas posts on the social media blog Salty Waffle about how a friend in Hawaii had Tsunami warnings out on Facebook before any articles and another had warnings for the West Coast of the US before any major news networks had information out. Inevitably Twitter’s trending topics of #tsunami and #prayforjapan were both throwing out thousands of tweets per second discussing the event.

Google is also playing its part in supporting and aiding the flow of information, releasing a Japanese version of its Person Finder, as it did when the fatal earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand last month, alongside its Google Crisis Response.
The Person Finder app allows members of the public to upload information about themselves or others, and allows anyone to search through the database for specific individuals; within the first few hours over 4,000 records had already been logged.
The Crisis Response is a fluidly updating all encompassing report for those in Japan, including weather warnings, disaster bulletins and blackout warnings.

When it comes to outside help, it’s not just a matter of donating via the conventional means; there are so many more ways of helping out no matter how small. Mashable put together a short overview in their article Japan Earthquake & Tsunami: 7 Simple Ways to Help, with suggestions from Facebook to iTunes. Sony Online Entertainment's Playstation Store has also been acting as a donation platform, receiving direct donations or offering virtual goods, where each item bought ensures a $10 donation from Sony to the American Red Cross to help the relief effort.

Bloggers have also been keen to jump in with aid, not just in spreading information, but on the donations drive too. One of the prominent movements for bloggers, the Silence For Japan campaign, which you can read more on here, has gone on to raise (at the time of writing this) a phenomenal $59,952 for ShelterBox, a charity which provides emergency shelter and supplies.

Whilst my friends and colleagues have escaped relatively unscathed, many others haven't been so lucky. Our best wishes go out to those in Japan and if you're interested in donating, the Red Cross is running an ongoing Japan Tsunami Appeal.

If you're considering making a donation, then be sure to read this article on donation scam emails, and remember never to divulge your card details to unofficial sources.

Author: Alice Cheetham


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