Tuesday, May 21, 2024
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

Japan disaster: Tapping into the lifeline of social media

By Jamie Williams

This is the story of seven people connected by the Great Tohoku Kanto Earthquake that rocked northern Japan in March and their need to obtain immediate and accurate information. Mass confusion combined with their desire to reach loved ones compelled them to turn to social media as a lifeline.

Through networked, digital technologies, they created new ways to supplement lifelines for those at the heart of the disaster. Some of the members took action from within the quake’s impact zone while others reached out from continents away. All were connected by the social network.

  • Iain Campbell | The Twitter Project
  • Masashige Motoe | On the Ground and Linked in
  • Brian Starkey | The Smart Phone Connection
  • Chris Hudler | The Wiki-Writer
  • Brett Bull | Twitter Emergency Response
  • Eric Butler | The Facebook Search Party
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    IAIN CAMPBELL | The Twitter Project

    Earthquakes are nothing new to Iain Campbell.

    He has experienced dozens during the ten years of living in Sendai city. But he was not prepared for this one.

    Campbell was in the library at work when the 9.0 quake came to life just over 100 kilometres from where he stood.

    The 35 year-old education advisor dove under a table, clutching both his iPad and cell phone.

    As walls cracked and dust began to fill the room, he thought to himself that at least he will have a way to call for help if he needs to.

    Then his mind turned to his wife and his two-year-old son who was at daycare.

    LISTEN: “I realized that most of the children were in bare feet and pajamas so I had to go back into the building with the shaking and the aftershocks still going.”

    The earthquake and tsunami blew out power lines. It cut gas and severed water pipes. But data connections that provide internet to mobile devices held up.

    Campbell and his family took refuge in his car and he began the search for the 70 Japan Exchange Programme (JET) teachers he helps manage.

    It soon became clear through e-mailing cell phones and computers that one teacher in particular was missing.

    It was here that the Twitter Project came alive.

    Campbell and another coworker drew a series of rectangular grids (PDF) over a screen shot of a Google Map image of the affected coastline in Miyagi Prefecture.

    They numbered each box on the grid from one to 83 and posted the image on the Foreigners From Miyagi Facebook group and asked for volunteers to choose a box and write hashtags (#) of prominent locations contained within.

    Then anyone on Twitter could use each hash tag, such as “#onagawahighschool,” as a searchable term to report on people found, relief supplies and updates concerned with that location.

    In effect, Campbell, along with two others, Greg Lekich and Joshua Mcveigh-Schultz, created a massive and centralized search engine with one goal in mind: to help those in areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

    LISTEN: We’ve got to basically make hundreds of locations into searchable terms? How am I going to do that…? And then I start thinking, thinking… Facebook!”

    MASASHIGE MOTOE | On the Ground and Linked in

    Masashige Motoe was sitting down to eat when Sendai station began to rock back and forth.

    One, two, three waves of tremors shook the station before the earthquake started to show signs of stopping.

    The restaurant owner put his hands against the wall as if to prevent it from falling and told everyone to remain calm. Everyone did.

    Some people even tried to pay for their meal before leaving.

    Station staff evacuated the 45-year-old university professor and hundreds of others outside to a parking lot between the main bus and taxi loops.

    Massive pedestrian decks loomed nervously above as aftershocks continued to rumble.

    Motoe reached for his cell phone to find he had no service.

    LISTEN: “It was the first experience for me [in] 45 years in Japan. It was the first time I [was] really afraid.”

    Notes regarding audio:

    • “Shinkansen” is Japanese for Bullet Train.

    Motoe calls himself an “early adopter” of Twitter.

    He began using the social networking site as soon as it came out — back in the day when there was so few users one could see a single timeline of tweets.

    When Motoe found himself evacuated out of Sendai station along with hundreds of others, it was Twitter that he turned to in order to get immediate local information and cut through “sensational mass media.”

    The professor said the experience of using Twitter during this disaster helped him understand the “true character of realtime” and cultivate the courage to remain in Sendai and begin the rebuilding process.

    Notes regarding audio:

    • “Striken Area” = Stricken Area
    • “Cool information” = calm, objective information.

    LISTEN: “It’s quite difficult to imagine the experience without Twitter… if we communicate [with] only local person and [through] sensational mass media, I can’t keep my heart and mind calm.”

    BRIAN STARKEY | The Smart Phone Connection

    Brian Starkey was on his way from Sendai to Tokyo by bullet train. It had just arrived at Fukushima station.

    The doors opened and some passengers got off and others got on. The doors closed again.

    The 36-year-old waited but the train did not move.

    The slight lurch passengers feel when a train moves forward did not come. Instead, the passenger car began to shake then rock back and forth.

    Brian and the other passengers could do nothing but look on as the city shook and rumbled.

    The train’s doors remained closed.

    LISTEN: “I don’t know what happened but I think a hose had busted and water just started spewing out everywhere. There were clouds of dust coming up. You know people were just like this can’t be real.”

    The earthquake and tsunami severed telephone lines, destroyed roads and halted transportation.

    Officials evacuated Starkey to Fukushima city hall. He had his cell phone charger with him and managed to find a spot near an outlet in the wall among the dozens of people already in the building.

    Starkey, and his smart phone’s data connection, soon became a hub for himself and others in the make-shift shelter to get a hold of people and obtain valuable information.

    Starkey’s digital connection to his family kept him calm and help him make vital decisions throughout the unfolding calamity.

    He decided to stay longer in Fukushima and away from his family in Sendai, an area that bore the brunt of the tsunami and was low on resources.

    The information he garnered also lead to “the hardest decision in [his] life:” to leave his wife’s family and evacuate his own out of Sendai.

    LISTEN: “These Facebook groups that were being made — they were able to glean the information into manageable sizes for me… I was able to make clear decisions because of that.”

    CHRIS HUDLER | The Wiki-writer

    Chris Hudler and his girlfriend were at home in Washington, getting ready for work.

    She yelled at him from the washroom to turn on the TV.

    The 32-year-old flicked on the television to see images of his “favourite spot” in all of Japan being “washed away.”

    Hudler lived in the north-eastern coastal city of Natori when he was 22.

    His house was minutes from where the tsunami pounded its way over breakwaters and through city streets.

    The onslaught of water wiped the city of 74,000 people off the map.

    LISTEN: “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I used to bike out there weekly. It was my home.”

    Hudler went straight to the Internet and then Facebook.

    A quick search lead him to a newly-created Facebook group called Foreigners from Miyagi. He joined and within two days saw the group morph into something inspirational.

    700 members from around the world joined the online meeting place and turned it into an unofficial search party and a place to filter and exchange information. But non-stop posting became overwhelming.

    Someone floated the idea to develop an online Wikipedia page that could be constantly updated and tweaked with new and vital information.

    People needed “a bank” of information that anyone with the Internet could access and that was updated as information came in.

    Hudler took the project on.

    LISTEN: “There were maps for places to go to get food or fuel or water. There were maps of what roads were available, what roads not to go to… this stuff is important.”

    BRETT BULL | Twitter Emergency Response

    The first rumblings of the earthquake forced Brett Bull to stop working.

    Desks, tables and walls shook. Books, printers and folders fell.

    Bull, along with everyone in the Tokyo office, sought cover.

    As the earthquake intensified, the 42-year-old freelance journalist realized this was no ordinary earthquake.

    Only after “what seemed like forever” did the tremors stop.

    Bull and his fellow coworkers immediately gathered around the TV. They flipped to the local NHK news broadcast and watched the screen as the severity of the disaster in the north slowly made itself clear.

    LISTEN: “I eventually dove under my desk, my colleagues were under their desks. The quake went on for what seemed like forever.”

    Bull is also an avid “twitterer.”

    He has used the social media service for over two years and has accumulated over 15,000 followers.

    Bull immediately started tweeting in English what he was seeing on the local news broadcast.

    His tweets reached a bus load of people and helped them navigate their way through the destroyed network of roads in the north.

    LISTEN: “The international media had picked up on the story of course but not in a way that was substantial so people were sort of relying on me to feed them decent news.”

    ERIC BUTLER | The Facebook Search Party

    Eric Butler was in bed at home in Calgary, AB when his mother called.

    Half awake, he picked up.

    She told him that a massive earthquake had just rocked Japan and that a tsunami was decimating coastal cities, including Natori, where he lived and worked as a teacher for two years.

    He did not know if the disaster had reached the dozens of students and educators he had spent so much time with while he was there.

    LISTEN: “My mind is really fuzzy in the initial point just because of the shock.”


    After a flurry of e-mails, Butler created the Foreigners from Miyagi Facebook group.

    Within hours, Butler saw his digital meeting space turn into “a completely different entity.”

    The group ballooned to over 300 members by nightfall, then to over 700 hundred in two days.

    Members begun to help spread information and translate local news. People fact-checked rumors and sensationalized media.

    Above all else, perhaps, the group managed to put hundreds of people in touch with loved ones.

    It soon became apparent that one particular Japanese Exchange Programme (JET) teacher named Taylor Anderson was missing. She was last seen in an area engulfed by the tsunami.

    The 700-plus members galvanized around the whereabouts of Anderson and transformed the group into a digital search party in an effort to locate her.

    Butler helped lead the way.

    Sadly, after the interview was conducted, the news emerged that Anderson was found dead near one of the schools where she taught.

    LISTEN: “It’s just kind of incredible the amount of information we’ve gathered about one missing person with nothing but our computers, an Internet connection and a couple volunteers in the area.”

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