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The Daily Need

Digital tools to track the aftermath of Japan’s tsunami

The tsunami caused by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the coast of northern Japan this morning has washed over farmland, swept away homes and roads and engulfed entire cities. Officials have already identified as many as 300 dead in the city of Sendai, with thousands of others missing.

The most immediate concern in the aftermath of the crisis is coordinating rescue efforts and identifying missing persons. Two digital tools launched by Google and crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi allow people in Japan and elsewhere to do that, using an Internet connection or SMS.

Google has launched a “Person Finder” application that allows users to enter information either about people they’re looking for or people they’ve found. The tool could be especially useful for rescue efforts in Japan, enabling relief workers to direct resources to people who are in need. But even people who are not in Japan can help by adding information about people they know might have been affected by the tsunami but are now safe. As of Friday morning, there were already 7,200 records of missing or identified persons.

Ushahidi, a crowd-sourcing platform that enables people to send in alerts about missing persons or other details about the crisis, has also launched a Japanese platform. People can send in the locations of trapped persons or victims in need of help — as well as the locations of aid resources, emergency medical teams or dangerous buildings — and the locations will be collected on a map. Ushahidi’s crisis-mapping software proved critical in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti last year, allowing relief workers from non-governmental agencies and the United Nations to decide where to direct resources and coordinate rescue efforts more effectively.

The utility of both resources depends on the help of volunteers. The State Department has urged U.S. citizens in Japan to contact loved ones and let them know where they are, and platforms like Ushahidi and Google’s person finder could be ideal for that kind of communication. The more aid workers and international officials know about people who are safe, the more resources they can direct to those who are not.

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