Patrick Meier: Humanitarian Technology Lessons Learned from Japan

Advanced Cyber/IO
Patrick Meier
Patrick Meier

Humanitarian Technology and the Japan Earthquake

My Internews colleagues have just released this important report on the role of communications in the 2011 Japan Earthquake. Independent reports like this one are absolutely key to building the much-needed evidence base of humanitarian technology. Internews should thus be applauded for investing in this important report. The purpose of my blog post is to highlight findings that I found most interesting and to fill some of the gaps in the report’s coverage.


I’ll start with the gaps since there are far fewer of these. While the report does reference the Sinsai Crisis Map, it over looks a number of key points that were quickly identified in an email reply just 61 minutes after Internews posted the study on the CrisisMappers list-serve. These points were made by my colleague Jeffrey Reynolds who spearheaded some of the digital response efforts from The Fletcher School in Boston:

“As one of the members who initiated crisis mapping effort in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, I’d like to set the record straight on 4 points:

  • The crisis mapping effort started at the Fletcher School with students from Tufts, Harvard, MIT, and BU within a couple hours of the earthquake. We took initial feeds from the SAVE JAPAN! website and put them into the existing OpenStreetMap (OSM) for Japan. This point is not to take credit, but to underscore that small efforts, distant from a catastrophe, can generate momentum – especially when the infrastructure in area/country in question is compromised.
  • Anecdotally, crisis mappers in Boston who have since returned to Japan told me that at least 3 people were saved because of the map.
  • Although crisis mapping efforts may not have been well known by victims of the quake and tsunami, the embassy community in Tokyo leveraged the crisis map to identify their citizens in the Tohuku region. As the proliferation of crisis map-like platforms continues, e.g., Waze, victims in future crises will probably gravitate to social media faster than they did in Japan. Social media, specifically crisis mapping, has revolutionized the role of victim in disasters–from consumer of services, to consumer of relief AND supplier of information.
  • The crisis mapping community would be wise to work with Twitter and other suppliers of information to develop algorithms that minimise noise and duplication of information.

Thank you for telling this important story about the March 11 earthquake. May it lead to the reduction of suffering in current crises and those to come.” Someone else on CrisisMappers noted that “the first OSM mappers of satellite imagery from Japan were the mappers from Haiti who we trained after their own string of catastrophes.” Internews’s reply to this feedback was exemplary and far more constructive than the brouhaha that occurred over the Disaster 2.0 Report. So I applaud them for how positive, pro-active and engaging they have been to the constructive feedback.

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