Japan Earthquake: Tech Volunteers, Companies Rally Response

By Susan Nunziata  |  Posted 03-14-2011

Japan Earthquake: Tech Volunteers, Companies Rally Response

As the Humanitarian crisis in Japan continues to unfold in the wake of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck March 11, volunteer technologists from around the globe are coming together to offer help.

The earthquake and its aftershocks, as well as a subsequent tsunami, have devastated much of Japan and sparked crises at many of the nation's nuclear power plants.

Crisis Commons reports that more than 100 technology volunteers have signed up to lend their expertise to disaster response and recovery efforts. The organization is also providing additional support in the mobile and GIS areas through collaboration with Appcelerator's mobile development community and GISCorps. Crisis Commons says more volunteers are needed -- especially those with technical skills as well as those who can provide search, translation, writing and research skills.

Since March 11, Crisis Commons volunteers from around the world have been collecting information and data sets in support of a UN OCHA information-gathering request. Hundreds of entries to the Crisis Commons Wiki have included data sets such as KML files and resources such as road and transportation data, the organization reports.

NetHope has been collaborating with volunteer technology groups, including Crisis Commons, working on information and data sharing activities, providing guidance on what kind of information will be useful for the response teams. Through member collaboration and by facilitating public-private partnerships with major technology companies, foundations and individuals, NetHope helps its members use their technology investments to serve people in the most remote areas of the world.

Several NetHope member organizations, which include the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Save the Children, World Vision, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps. And Habitat for Humanity, are involved in the Japan earthquake response, according to the organization's website.

A NetHope report issued March 12 notes that undersea telecommunication cables in and out of Japan seem to have mostly survived. Mainland Chinese carrier China Unicom said two or three cables between Japan and China have been damaged, but traffic was being routed around the breaks. The quake appears to have damaged the Asia Pacific Cable Network 2, which is owned by a consortium of 14 telecom operators, let by AT&T.

NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, and Softbank Corp -- the three largest mobile-phone carriers in Japan -- said their services were disrupted across many regions. According to a March 14 NetHope report, mobile services are still very difficult to utilize in the affected areas. Most relief teams are utilizing satellite phones as the only reliable source of communication. NetHope is working with the U.S. State Department, FCC and Global VSAT Forum on clarifying the process for import of any communication equipment. Ministry of Communications in Japan is advising relief teams to only utilize satellite equipment working on the Inmarsat or Iridium terminals.

Internet traffic to and from Japan seems not to have been affected, and many people have used the Internet, including Skype and social media, to communicate with each other and outside the country.

Japan Earthquake, Tsumani: An IT Wakeup Call

CIO Insight's sister publication eWeek reports that it isn't immediately known how many IT facilities or data centers were washed away in the disaster. The mere fact that this horrific crisis happened serves to remind IT managers about their own business continuity systems and to consider how well-prepared they are for such an event.

A fact of human nature is that people become complacent as time passes without a real disaster alert affecting an IT system. An event like the March 11 quake ostensibly should serve to wake up those who might not have been testing their systems regularly--or scare those who, in fact, have no backup systems at all in place.

Another fact of human nature is that there is always someone waiting in the wings to exploit a disaster. Within hours of the devastating earthquake and tsunami, cyber-criminals had poisoned search results based on the Japan disaster with malicious links. For example, users searching on "most recent earthquake in Japan" may encounter some malicious links to fake anti-virus software, Trend Micro researchers said March 11. Malware writers used black-hat search engine manipulation techniques to push these links to the top of the search results, according to a post on the company's Malware Blog.

There are plenty of positive responses as well. For example, all four major U.S. wireless carriers are enabling customers to send free texts to aid organizations. AT&T and Verizon are additionally offering free calling and texting to Japan.

AT&T customers can also text "redcross" to 90999 to make a $10 donation to support the Red Cross' support efforts in Japan, and through March 17, can view TV Japan, the 24-hour Japanese news channel available to U-verse TV subscribers, free of charge.

Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile are waiving text-messaging fees for customers donating to disaster-relief organizations.

Google whipped up one of its customary crisis-response Websites to provide support information for those affected by disaster. The site includes emergency lines, sources for alarms and warnings, such as the Japan Meteorological Agency Tsunami Warnings/Advisories, a disaster bulletin board and even train information to help people evacuate. A "person finder" tool helps people look for family and friends separated by the disaster. Google Maps and YouTube videos also chart the quake's path of destruction.

Japan Earthquake, Tsunami: Business Impact Unknown

Major technology companies based in Japan are assessing the full impact of the disaster on their operations Many high-tech manufacturers in Japan have had to stop production to carry out safety checks. The prospect of rolling blackouts means further interruptions are likely over the coming weeks. Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba and Canon are among the companies affected.

There could be significant near-term effects on the semiconductor industry, according to analysts. Japan and Taiwan account for a huge portion of global semiconductor manufacturing, and even the smallest amount of downtime could have a large impact on chip supply and prices, the analysts said in various reports.

More than 40 percent of the NAND flash memory chips and about 15 percent of the global DRAM supplies are made in Japan, which also is a key source of chips that support such booming consumer electronics devices as smartphones, tablets and PCs, Jim Handy, an analyst with semiconductor market research firm Objective Analysis, said in a March 11 report.

Raymond James Equity Research wrote in a media advisory March 14 that most DRAM players have ceased "spot" price quoting activity since March 11 as a result of uncertainty regarding manufacturing-equipment damage, power disruptions and raw-wafer supply disruptions.