Twitter Data Grant to Assist Japanese Disaster Information System


America’s Twitter Inc. and the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) in Japan will collaborate on the development of the Disaster Information Analysis System in an effort to better support Japanese victims and rescue workers during large scale disasters.

The NICT is one of six global research institutions to receive access to Twitter’s database, after beating over a thousand competing applications for a coveted Twitter Data Grant.

Between 1980 and 2010, an average of 276 people were killed each year from natural disasters in Japan, with total economic damage estimated to be upwards of US $200 billion. Earthquakes in particular are a major concern, with the nation being affected by over 50 earthquakes above magnitude 6 on the Richter scale since 2003. The horrific 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan’s Tōhoku region saw the loss of 15,883 lives and caused up to $309 billion in physical damage.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima Disaster, Twitter played an important role in providing huge amounts of disaster-related information, with the NICT estimating that more than 50 million tweets were sent out after the quake. Much of this information, however, was not effectively utilized by authorities to help people. The Disaster Information Analysis System aims to change that.

Through real-time crowd sourcing, the NICT could organize the vast amounts of disaster related tweets using a question-answering engine to extract key pieces of information. Authorities would then be able to coordinate specific physical responses through answers to key questions such as what supplies are needed in a particular area. The system is also able to present the locations of repliers on a map, giving responders an overview of the damage and rescue activities already in progress.

Twitter’s contribution to disaster response efforts is just the latest American involvement in such work in Japan. In response to the 2011 disaster, the US aid program, Operation Tomodachi, saw the mobilization of some 24,000 US service members, 24 naval ships and 189 aircraft, at a total cost of nearly US$90 million.

Twitter Data Grants have been awarded to five other global institutions, including a similar project in Jakarta aimed at sharing real time information about flooding in Indonesia’s capital.

Jonathan Gordon is a graduate of the University of Sydney and former Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington, D.C.