Friday, March 11, 2011

62. technology does what it can for the land of the rising sun

no silly image or cheesy tagline for this one, as it can't really apply today.  as you all probably know by now, early this morning, a devastating earthquake registering at an 8.9 on the richter scale struck the island nation of japan roughly 200 miles from the city of tokyo.  this was the most powerful earthquake to hit the land of the rising sun in over 100 years, killing hundreds, uprooting thousands, and delivering widespread damage as far as 6 miles inland from the country's eastern coastline.  there was even a threat of a nuclear emergency at an atomic power plant north of tokyo, the quake downing plant cooling systems, causing an additional evacuation of all residents within 3 km of the plant.  the quake caused a twofold problem - not only was there the structural damage - the nuclear problem mentioned, collapsed buildings and power loss, but since the epicenter of the earthquake was in the water, it also spun off massive tsunamis hitting the japanese coast and even radiating outward towards hawaii and the western US coast.  according to shenza chen of the US geological survey, an earthquake of that magnitude in shallow water (shallow here being about 15 miles deep) creates an extremely large amount of energy, driving the tsunami across the pacific.

residents in hawaii were evacuated from the coastlines as a precautionary measure against potential damage caused by the waves.  there were reports of 7 foot high waves in maui, with lower reports of 4.3 in hilo and 2.2 in honolulu.  for those that may think that 7 foot high waves aren't really that bad, you need to understand that these aren't ordinary waves - they have far more power behind them and enough force to push water inland.  tsunami warnings remained in effect until after 11AM eastern time.  after last year's chilean earthquake, officials decided to play it a little safer.  just to put things into perspective on how powerful this earthquake and the associated waves were, hawaii is almost 7,000 miles away from the epicenter of the earthquake, and hawaiian harbors still felt it.  harbors on the western US coast saw enough power in the water to knock boats loose from their moorings.

amid this type of chaos, a lack of communication can easily amplify these problems by a great degree.  with infrastructure damage it's always possible that networks and phone lines may be down, so firing off a text or email to loved ones saying "i'm ok" may be out of the question.  i know from my own experience that even proximity to an event can drive a family member to mania if they don't hear anything.  something as simple as a person being out of touch can lead to fear and hysteria in those who worry about them, who in an event of this magnitude could have little idea or awareness as to whether or not a loved one is even alive.  in this situation, technology has stepped in to try to help out, and open some lines of communication.

google has published their person finder, available in different languages, that allows people to enter the name of a person to either search for any information on them or post any new information about them.  the service is completely user driven, so people have to contribute for the tool to be of any use, but so far (as of 1:41pm eastern) there are roughly 7200 records.  it also provides a single point for other disaster notification services from japanese companies.  google also used this application after the christschurch earthquake in february.  a japenese developer published something similar with the ushahidi crisis platform (in japanese).  this is separate from their crisis response center, which provides users with relevant maps, emergency numbers and links to other services for further information.  news outlets like CNN are providing constant coverage and updates, liveblogs and eyewitness accounts, and there are a myriad of other tools and tech online aimed to help, educate and illustrate the scope of what's happening.

social media has also been buzzing throughout the ordeal - the hawaiian red cross has been constantly updating their feed on twitter (@hawaiiredcross), providing information, news and video.  earlier this morning individual users were seding tweets to wake people up on the west coast if they don't already know about the tsunami warnings.  facebook group pages have appeared earlier today to provide information and spread the word about what's going on while individual users are posting information and well wishes through their walls.  internet communities and our state of communications technology have definitely helped in a number of ways.

this doesn't even go into how technology helped from the very start, in the form of japan's early earthquake warning system.  this warning system senses the first shockwave and sends messages to TV and radio stations, news outlets and even cell phones.  unfortunately for those close to the epicenter, the warning may not have made it in time, but to people further out, it could have made a world of difference.

of course technology can only go so far and help so much.  all we can hope for now is for a minimized loss of life and a steady road to recovery.

popular science
wall street journal

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