Japanese disaster underscores importance of social media and mobile technology

The tragedy hitting Japan is recovering from right now cannot be fathomed in its affect on the Japanese people.  It underscores the importance of being prepared for these kind of disasters, and for knowing how to cope in the middle of it.  That's why I support emergency preparedness training in local communities and am particularly proud of my own church that is conducting classes this month in how to help people cope with these kind of disasters.


In the context of this blog, however, I would like to point out how important social media can be, in conjunction with mobile technology and I bring it up today in the interest of being prepared.  In this CNN video I was watching this morning, one of the points brought up was how people should stay off the telephone lines to allow first responders and government workers to deal with the problems.  You know this is the right thing to do but when you are in the midst of the crisis it is hard for those affected to restrain themselves.


I remember during the Loma Prieta earthquake, I was on the first business trip of my career and was 400 miles away from my wife, my 5-year-old daughter and my one-month old son.  i saw the coverage of the fires in SF, the collapsed freeway in Oakland and the damage on the Oakland bridge.  I had to find out if my family was alright and I spent 5 hours trying to get through to them.  That would not have been an issue if I had a smart phone with a data package.


Thinking about that time and the technology available to me today makes me realize what an amazing world we live in.  A simple text message takes up almost no bandwidth on the communication lines and can maintain a crucial connection with family.  But it doesn't stop there.


Smart phones with video cameras can be used to transmit pictures of injuries.  Location-based social applications can pinpoint where survivors are.  And most importantly, it can keep families connected in desperate times.  Facebook and Twitter may be too public for situations like this, but could be useful.  Lesser-known applications that focus on local communities, like DeHood, might be more effective as they better integrate audio, video and text.


For example, in a situation like Japan, using an iPhone and DeHood, you can take pictures or video of injuries, electrical dangers, fire, etc. and send them directly to emergency services, media or even family.  You can use the GPS services to identify your location and, even in some cases, virtually check if you are not actually on site but are within visual range.  First responders can ask questions, direct you to safe areas and do more efficient disaster triage.


Yes, of course that depends on having the mobile phone system up and running.  It's not perfect, but in my case with Loma Prieta, I would have been able to make quick contact with the family or at least neighbors who would know what is going on.  The point is, it wasn't possible then.  It is possible now.


Many people still think that all this technology is just fun and games.  You can't say that for people seeking freedom in the Middle East, or for those trying to survive in Japan.  We all need to think beyond the convenience and what this means for our communities.