This is an exploratory paper on a look at how locational technologies were not effectively utilized during the Japan Earthquake despite their availabilities through social media and mobile devices. It also looks at how geo-enabling might be used to monitor future disaster relief efforts.
Part 1: How Twitter was used after the Earthquake
For many us, the moments during and after March 11th, 2011 were both harrowing and unreal, as we saw the horrors of the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami unfold. For those of us who were not physically in Japan, we were forced to look upon the disaster in despair, helpless to provide any immediate assistance. What made this disaster closer to us, in some ways even personal to the global audience, was the abundance of social media streams that allowed the world to feel the pain, see user generated media content, and listen to what was going on… in real time.
My uncle’s house is underwater because of the tsunami. He is stuck on the second floor. Please save him. Ishinomaki-shi 3-2-26 #j_j_helpme
On March 11th, 2011, the tweet shown above was seen on Twitter. It was a plea for help from a woman trying to save her uncle, trapped on the second floor of his house that was in a flood zone caused by the tsunami disaster in Ishinomaki. She added the hashtag #j_j_helpme which was designated to be used for people seeking help in the aftermath of the earthquake. Her plea for help was retweeted, over and over again. She even left an address that allowed us to be able to locate her uncle. Looking at the location on a map, sure enough, we find out that her uncle’s house was located in one of the hardest hit residential areas inundated by the tsunami.
Uncle’s house is in the tsunami flood zone
While it is unclear as to whether or not her tweet actually mobilized relief agencies to save her uncle, we are able to follow her thread by “following” her via her twitter account, and find out that just a few days later, she posted the following message:
- “My uncle was rescued! Thank you everybody! I pray that others will be rescued as well!!!”
The power of the social web
It was through moments like these, following stories via the social web, that enabled many of us from around the world to experience what was happening on the ground, as if we were there. In some ways, the spatial boundaries were bridged through the power of social media. The social fabric of the nation quickly revolved around the usage of Twitter as the primary mode of communication, from requesting medical aid, assistance, seeking information about missing people, sending encouragement, and also reporting damage and transportation infrastructure statuses. While Twitter was used predominantly to talk about entertainment and anime before the earthquake, it quickly morphed into something entirely different on the day of the disaster, where 72% of the topics were related to the Earthquake, and another 8% were on transportation.
Before and after Twitter topics
In some ways, Twitter became the virtual bulletin board for exchanging valuable information, disseminating it to the public, and utilizing the social networks to “spread the word” quickly and effectively. For March 11 alone, 33 million tweets were reported in Japan, almost double the average daily usage. Over the next 30 days, more than 700 million tweets were reported. Out of a total population of 128 million, that is a lot of tweets, even when you take into account the fact that most users tweet multiple times.
The power of the “re”tweet
Part of the intrigue, and power of the social web, lies in its ability to transmit data through a multitude of networks that grows exponentially the more “popular” the information is. In Twitter, this is accomplished through its “retweet”ing capabilities, the simple notion of sharing a tweet with others in your network, and subsequently having people in your network retweeting it again, until a single tweet reaches a massive audience, sometimes in a matter of hours.
In the case of the tweets related to the Earthquake, retweeting was used effectively to communicate infrastructure damage, missing person notices, and even announcing relevant hashtags. Here are some examples of tweets that were retweeted more than a thousand times:
Tweet from a hospital director in Miyagi announcing that 30 patients are near starvation, seeking food, medical equipment and fuel.
The single most retweeted tweet
Among all the tweets, there was a single tweet that got retweeted more than 20,000 times:
While most tweets were informational in nature, the most “popular” tweet in Japan following the earthquake was about courage and sacrifice. Because the effects of radiation typically takes years to kick in, it was the older generation that stepped up to the plate to go to the front lines, risking exposure, but knowing that they had fewer years to live than their younger counter-parts. In many ways, symbolizing the spirit of the Japanese people during these trying times, even prompting the Prime Minister to proclaim to these volunteers, “You are the only ones who can resolve a crisis. Retreat is unthinkable,” according to the Financial Times.
Just a day after the earthquake, Twitter announced a set of recommended hashtags to be used to categorize specific post-disaster situational needs:
General earthquake information: #jishin
Requests for rescue or other aid: #j_j_helpme
Evacuation information: #hinan
Confirmation of safety of individuals, places, etc.: #anpi
Medical information for victims: #311care
This information quickly went viral, and became recognized as the “official” hashtag by the public as was noted by many of the retweets regarding this announcement:
Tweet announcing the “official” hashtags to be used:
Part 2 of this paper will look at how Twitter, through the use of these hashtags were used during the days after the disaster.
Part 2: Analyzing Post Disaster Twitter Data >>