Learning From Japan's Disaster

Citizens can build on that information to do everything possible to stop inevitable disasters from having such devastating effects on our communities.
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During the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shooting, students and witnesses desperately tried to send text messages to 911. Local dispatchers never received them because their systems only take voice calls. As technology rapidly changes, what lessons can be learned from tragic situations like the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, and how can they be applied to prevent such devastating consequences?

As a country, we have become obsessed with the newest technologies, not necessarily the best ones. In NYC, my iPhone doesn't work on a regular day. I fear the thought of what might happen in a disaster situation with the bottle-necking of data that will take place. Fewer sturdy landlines and more faulty mobiles is a dangerous combination.

In the U.S., our reliance on mobile technology also means being tethered to the connection that the mobile companies provide. In much of the world, radios are a basic part of the phone. Here, it's much harder to come by even offices with radios, as most people are taking to streaming radio programs from the Internet on demand, instead of keeping the actual dial tuned in.

In Haiti, Digicel, the mobile provider that had 80 percent market share had its towers go down. That meant the only information coming out of the country during the initial disaster was from public channels, i.e. Twitter and Facebook. Having a team of colleagues on the ground, I was desperate to know if they and our local partners were safe. Thankfully, they were. I sprung into action with a team of Tufts University students to visualize this information on an Ushahidi crisis map. Soon the U.S. Coast Guard was responding to this information to pull people out of the rubble.

The stories now coming out of Japan leave out the crucial details that can inspire preparation. Instead, we're left with the sensationalism of the wreckage and radiation fallout, overriding the tangible information that citizens around the world can learn from to demand a more responsive government. Were SMS alerts sent to citizens in the affected regions? Were responders receiving information from people in real-time to make better decisions on how best to help? Did local corruption interfere with the stability of the buildings? Citizens can build on that information to do everything possible to stop inevitable disasters from having such devastating effects on our communities.

The revolution in Egypt spread organically, like a wiki. But the reality is that so does disaster response. And so will more of the world around us. It's no longer safe to assume that the fire department will spring into action, as well as the police. It's now crucial to understand that they both will, but alongside with other citizens who, trained or untrained, will try to do their part. If Tweets from citizens can inform those authorities whether the street on which they've planned an emergency route is blocked, then that real-time collaboration will save lives. And if our government helps facilitate that interaction, then they'll truly be embracing what it means to be 21st century leaders, not merely using technology to turn out more voters.

The administration has already taken an important step by federally mandating open data, meaning that things like the missing persons databases that sprung up during Katrina are in a standard format and can be shared, instead of forcing scared family members to log into site after site looking for loved ones. But imagine if Obama ran a drill telling citizens to go out and take a picture of a pothole or crack in the sidewalk, then to upload it to a site with some details as part of a drill in preparation for a future disaster. He has the potential of capturing the imagination of the nation. He could create new incentives for people to become heroes, like a sort of a Purple Heart at home or even new Boy Scout and Girl Scout badges. But it also means encouraging people to plan ahead and not be so reliant on technologies that are centralized. Defining 21st century citizenship can mean transcending partisanship to build innovative ways to save lives and have citizens aspire to greatness.

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