In Tech-Savvy Japan, Citizens Utilize Crisis Mapping

Open source software called Ushahidi allows people to add and update information to maps that anyone with an Internet connection can access. In Tokyo, a crew of volunteers is using the software to map everything — from health services to the location of emergency aid workers — in Japan's hardest hit areas. Patrick Meier, director of the crisis mapping segment of Ushahidi, says that because of the robust Internet infrastructure in Japan and tech-savvy citizenry, online crisis mapping is being utilized to its fullest potential.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

And it's time now for ALL TECH CONSIDERED.

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We have been reporting daily on the extensive damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. One piece of the country's infrastructure that survived relatively intact is the Internet. In fact, just hours after disaster struck, Japanese volunteers in Tokyo were able to jump online and map hazard zones and emergency services across the country.

NPR's Shareen Marisol Meraji reports on how this kind of crisis mapping, as it's called, has become increasingly popular in just a few years.

SHAREEN MARISOL MERAJI: If type in the Web address sinsai.info, that's S-I-N-S-A-I.info, you'll see a map of Japan with giant red dots on it. Each dot corresponds to a different region of the country. The numbers within the dots correspond to reports sports from that region.

Now, if you click on a red side closest to the Sendai, where much of the devastation occurred, you'll find a lot of info in Japanese. There's a translate button but it's pretty bad.

So I asked NPR's resident Japanese speaker, intern Ryan Brooks, to come down to the newsroom and help me get a sense of what's there.

RYAN BROOKS: Uh-huh. There's all kinds of stuff. Some are confirmations of radio stations that are broadcasting information that everybody needs; the train stations that are acting as shelters. This is just someone's house just saying, hey, you know, if you need help and you're in the area, we're extending it to you. This is pretty incredible actually.

Aw, this one has got a picture with a baby, the description of the mother and the child; both of whom were lost.

MERAJI: An average of 433 updates today have been posted to the Japan Crisis Map since the earthquake and tsunami. Mapping volunteers and government employees in Japan are doing this with free, Open Source software called Ushahidi.

NPR's social media strategists Andy Carvin, says the Ushahidi website has only been around for about three years.

ANDY CARVIN: Back in 2008, they created a map to document ethnic violence in Kenya and they also did similar things in other parts of Africa. And it's been used during a number of crises around the world to document a whole range of problems; everything from as big as the Haiti earthquake to things as relatively small as snowstorms in Washington, D.C.

MERAJI: The Haiti Crisis Map was primarily used by international aid organizations. That's also true now for the Libyan Crisis Maps, because so many people there don't have access to the Internet.

But in tech-savvy Japan, a majority of the crisis map volunteers and consumers are Japanese. A Japanese cell phone operator even promised to lend thousands of smartphones to volunteers eager to help.

Mr. PATRICK MEIER (Director of Crisis Mapping, Ushahidi): You have that kind of spirit and that kind of optimism in the face of tragedy.

MERAJI: Ushahidi's director of crisis mapping, Patrick Meier.

Mr. MEIER: Coupled with the savviness that Japanese people have in using these kinds of new, innovative, mobile technologies, I think we have something quite powerful here that could really make a deep difference.

MERAJI: NPR's social media strategists Andy Carvin says it might make a deep difference in Japan, but things are murky when it comes to Libya.

CARVIN: When you post information on a humanitarian map, the worst it could be is just wrong and maybe waste a person's time. But if you put the wrong information on the war-related map, you could be putting people's lives at risk. And this is one of the first times that I'm aware of where we've been able to see these social mapping projects happen at the same time, and get a sense of how the dynamics are different.

MERAJI: Future crisis mappers can draw on lessons learned, because these maps usually live online, long after a crisis has come to an end.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

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