After the quake: crowdsourcing Japan

March 28th, 2011 by

microtask_japan_tsunamiA massive earthquake, a tsunami and a potential nuclear meltdown. The crisis in Japan is like a disaster movie. Only the “special effects” are real and Bruce Willis isn’t going to parachute in and save the day.

Scientists can now (more or less) accurately forecast volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts and hurricanes. But despite the best efforts of seismologists (who probably get ignored by all the other physical scientists at parties), earthquakes remain devastatingly unpredictable.

Although technology is powerless to prevent an earthquake, it can certainly help clean-up afterwards. For the last fifty years Japan has led the world in electronics and computing. Now, users of that technology are getting together and giving something back.

On the map
Thanks to the pioneering work of Ushahidi in Haiti, crowdsourced crisis-mapping is now almost a standard part of earthquake response. With impressive speed, students in America launched a Japan crowdmap barely two hours after the earthquake struck. During the first chaotic post-quake days, over 3000 people uploaded geo-located data to the map. This provided rescue teams with vital information on trapped people, dangerous zones and supply levels.

By March 15th the world’s attention had turned from Sendai to the Fukushima nuclear plant. Multiple explosions and hysterical headlines stoked widespread fear about radiation (though in general the Americans seemed more panicked than the Japanese).

Amid all the rumor and speculation, newly launched website RDTN.org attempted to crowdsource some hard data. Ideal for people who always keep a Geiger counter handy, RDTN maps radiation readings submitted by the crowd. The website is keen to stress that the project:

“is not meant as a replacement for government or official nuclear agencies,” but hopes to “provide additional context to the official word in these rapidly changing events.”

It’s a worthy cause, although it is a concern that one false (accidental or deliberate), high radiation reading could cause a sudden panic.

Storm chasers
Imagine a 10 meter wall of water is hurtling out of the sea towards you. Do you drop everything and run, or take out your iPhone and start filming? A surprising number of people chose the second option. The Japanese tsunami was filmed close-up and from all angles. Far from being mere “disaster porn”, experts say these amateur and professional videos will provide invaluable new data. Storm researcher Dr Costas Synolakis hopes that footage of the force, speed and path of the Japanese wave may even help predict future tsunamis.

Land of the rising funds
The ability to forecast tsunamis may be good news for future generations. But to the people of Japan this must seem like a very, very thin silver lining. Reports estimate that over 500,000 people are now homeless or displaced (that’s equivalent to the whole population of Helsinki). As governments across the world pledge support, crowd funders have also stepped up.

Crowdrise is a non-profit platform that lists individual fundraising projects (like a charitable version of Kickstarter). Organizations register, describe their cause and set a target for crowd funded donations. The HopeforJapan section of the site has over 60 projects listed. There’s something satisfyingly democratic about the way Crowdrise gives every fundraiser equal space. So the American Red Cross is listed next to sponsored fun runs and lemonade stands. Together, crowd efforts have raised over $200,000 so far.

As the Japanese proverb (and this could be a motto for crowdsourcing in general) goes: “Virtue is not knowing but doing”.


  • http://twitter.com/Danielmsullivan Daniel Sullivan

    Great blog post, I found it after you followed my company (@appswell) on twitter, it motivated me to get to writing my own blog post on crowdsourcing lessons learned from the Japanese Quake. I took a different approach, but linked back to your article as a great piece on how crowdsourcing can be a valuable asset through the many stages of disaster relief, with some valuable examples. Here if you’re interested: http://bitly.com/fNOOKF


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