Google urges governments to share data for better disaster management

Google on Monday urged governments to get better at sharing information
to allow citizens and first responders to make better use of the
Internet during natural disasters.

At a conference in quake-prone
Japan, Rachel Whetstone, the firm’s senior vice president of public
policy and communications, said some countries hesitate over disclosing
data.

She said this prevents civil society from creating new services to help citizens in need.

“We
certainly have found access to data has enormously improved many of our
products, including maps,” she said at Google’s “Big Tent” conference,
designed to discuss issues related to the Internet and society.

Roughly
430 participants gathered for the first “Big Tent” in Asia, held in
this northern city, which was badly hit by the deadly earthquake and
tsunami in March 2011.

“We are still seeing quite a few
governments globally who are quite closed with their data. If we could
have… greater access to that data, I think we could do even more
amazing things,” Whetstone said.

Tokyo was criticised for not
publishing data it had as reactors at Fukushima went into meltdown,
spreading radiation over a large area and forcing tens of thousands of
people from their homes.

Public officials have said they were worried about sowing panic with information that was not readily understandable.

Engineers
at the Google event also complained how Japan initially released
radiation contamination data in PDF format, making it difficult for
scientists around the world to easily edit and analyse them.

The
global rush to access the data also caused the science ministry’s
servers to crash, prompting private IT firms and academics to scramble
to help disseminate the data in easy-to-use formats with English
translations.

“Scientists were very eager to attack this data if it could be organised,” Brian McClendon, Google vice president of technology.

Google strengthened its disaster response operations after Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States in 2005.

The
IT giant offered “person finder” services in Japan to help reunite
families along Japan’s northern Pacific coasts which were hit by the
9.0-magnitude quake and subsequent deadly tsunami, triggering the
Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

It also actively mapped areas hit by the tsunami, publishing photos of communities before and after the natural disaster.

But useful data from governments around the world in crises are difficult to collect, McClendon said.

“One
of the challenges we have discovered in Katrina remains today, which is
open data and being able to get it and deploy it and lay it on top of
other data. It is what really makes a difference,” he said.

Masaakira
James Kondo, country manager for Twitter Japan, said he is now helping
the Japanese government draft new guidelines for releasing information
in crisis situations.

“There are not a lot of examples, where an
earthquake of this scale hit a high-income nation that has Internet
readily available,” Kondo said.

“The government probably was the single entity that lost the public trust the most,” he said.

The
chaos in Japan after the triple disaster was amplified by fear of
unknown health effects from the nuclear crisis, said Margareta
Wahlstrom, UN special representative for disaster risk reduction.

Experts
at the conference also stressed the importance of keeping a free flow
of information on the Internet, even if it risked possible distribution
of false information.

Meanwhile, consumers of information must
also be educated to maximise the benefit of IT in disasters, said
Wahlstrom of the United Nations.

“There is enormous work to do
with the users — communities, individuals, organisations, local
governments — about how to apply this data, and what to do with the
knowledge actually at their fingertips today,” she said.