After the 2011 earthquake and nuclear meltdown in Japan, Mayor Tamotsu Baba of the small coastal city of Namie-machi invited Google to resurvey the town for its Street View feature. Due to privacy concerns, Street View had previously elicited controversy in Japan, but the Mayor hoped documenting the destruction would prompt action, and he wanted to give his 21,000 constituents a glimpse of their town, which had been evacuated due to radiation contamination. Google completed the project with one car in two weeks and also launched a website, Memories for the Future, to allow residents of Namie-machi and other municipalities to compare “before” and “after” images.
At a conference last week at Harvard called “Design for Urban Disaster,” Jeanne Haffner, a Harvard lecturer in the history of science, raised several questions about this particular use of technology. She noted that it had helped Google, which had been competing intensively with Yahoo in Japan; with this PR-friendly move, Google was “armed with humanitarian rhetoric.” But, Haffner argued, it was less clear whether the project has actually yielded concrete benefits for the people of Namie-machi: “The question is, how, if at all, it will impact efforts on the ground.” She observed that while the photographs depicted architectural destruction, they couldn’t show radiation.
Haffner’s critique, presented in a session titled “The Ethics and Politics of Crisis Mapping,” is part of a larger effort, both within and outside of humanitarian circles, to grapple with the rapidly developing role of information and communication technology in disaster response. High-tech tools extend the promise to save and improve lives, but they come with many asterisks-worth of caveats and challenges.
The potential benefits of new technologies are self-evident. During disasters, text messages and social media platforms afford instantaneous and efficient modes of communication. For example, according to a 2013 UN report, “Humanitarianism in the Network Age,” on August 6, 2012, a Filipina woman named Kassy Pajarillo sent out a tweet requesting help: Her mother and grandmother were trapped by flooding in Manila. “Within minutes,” according to the report, “emergency responders had dispatched a military truck, and her family was saved.”
But relying on technology for disaster response can be problematic. One risk, of course, is that the time of need is also the time most prone to power outages and cellular service failure. Another serious risk is reinforcing inequality and further marginalizing the most vulnerable, who are the least likely to have access to cutting-edge technologies. A different example from the 2012 floods in the Philippines, cited in the same UN report, illustrates the limits of Web-based communication: As Marcos Bonete, 49, boarded a rescue truck, he complained that he had not been informed of the coming floods. “I do not know why they are letting us wade into dirty water when all they need to do is, for example, put up a loud siren. Not all of us have Internet … I have yet to hear from my wife and two sons. I hope they are safe.”
Clearly, humanitarian responders must figure out how to optimally combine the new technologies with old-school approaches, to use both Twitter and sirens, or their equivalent. Mark Harvey, a humanitarian consultant who attended the Harvard conference, recalled that in post-earthquake Haiti, he helped run a radio broadcast, which solicited text messages from listeners about their most pressing needs. The texts were “streaming in,” Harvey told me — 600 to 700 per day. But, Harvey and his colleagues realized, these messages were “not a replacement for being on the ground,” because the least privileged did not necessarily have access to cell phones. So they also hired and trained 10 Haitian researchers to interview people in the community. (For what it’s worth, the concerns identified in these two ways were broadly parallel, progressing from the locations of blood banks to the plans for reopening schools.)
The example of Google Street View in Japan is different; it’s not an attempt to meet urgent needs mid-disaster. The project was initiated by the mayor, not hatched conspiratorially by the tech behemoth, and seems harmless and well-intentioned. But, Haffner argues, we should be cognizant of how these technologies shape our perceptions, and we should not assume that because they are fancy tools they will actually help victims.
In many ways, the challenges of using data and technology in urban disaster are the same as in other contexts: the importance of resisting the temptation to see them as a magic bullet, the need to be sensitive to the digital divide. But in floods and earthquakes and other such scenarios, the stakes are that much higher. How information is gathered and conveyed can determine whether someone escapes the surging rains or is rescued from the rubble. And as urban disasters are affecting greater numbers of people, it becomes increasingly critical to get it right.
The Science of Cities column is made possible with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow was Next City’s Science of Cities columnist in 2014. She has also written for the New York Times, Slate and Dissent, among other publications.