Social networks and the Internet were invaluable to Japan following quake. Will they be for the Philippines?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on March 18, 2011

“Social networks have shown their ability once again to unify us as human beings,” said Brad Shimmin, an analyst at Current Analysis, according to a report posted on Huffington Post following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Northeast Japan last Friday. Social networks and other Web 2.0 tools were used to post emergency assistance information, locations of shelters for those left homeless, and altered train schedules as well as to contact friends and family members.

The epicenter of the shallow quake was in the Pacific of the coast off Sendai City in Miyagi prefecture. Damage from the earthquake itself was not extensive. But a massive, 23-foot tsunami rolled across cities, towns, villages, and fields minutes later, flattening virtually everything in its path as far inland as six miles at some points. On an island no more than 140 miles wide the majority of the population lives near the ocean. And it was devastated.

The seventh-largest island in the world, Honshu—Japan’s main island—is about 800 miles long and is home to a population of about 100 million, not much more than the Philippines’ estimated 95 million. The Internet is ubiquitous, and about 20 million people have accounts on Mixi, the largest social network in Japan. According to comScore, Twitter has about 10 million users. Facebook is relatively small with only about two million active users.

With landlines and cellular networks heavily damaged and demand substantially heightened in the aftermath of the disaster, residents had little alternative to the Internet and SMS to communicate. Fortunately, data and SMS services remained accessible. Twitter “posted a guide for users to help people get information and communicate” in both English and Japanese, according to a The New York Times blog, “Media Decoder.”

To identify quake-related posts, users incorporated popular hash tags—#prayforjapan, #japan, #japanquake, and #tsunami—in their tweets. Twitter almost immediately became the fastest and most comprehensive source of information about the quake as residents and journalists sent thousands of tweets every second. Google quickly launched a People Finder application and aggregated map information showing shelters, nuclear power plants, and affected locations, also in English and Japanese, in an online Crisis Center.

Many experts believe a similarly devastating earthquake is inevitable in the Philippines, which like Japan, sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire. If that prediction proves sadly true, social networks are likely to provide a equally invaluable service to Filipinos—as long as the infrastructure holds up. Like the Japanese, Filipinos have embraced social networks, despite high costs and often unreliable infrastructure.

Filipinos account for almost a quarter of Facebook’s 520 million active users with close to 23 million members of the social network, according to Social Banker, which tracks usage of social networks. That makes the Philippines the second largest market for Facebook after Indonesia in Southeast Asia and the fifth largest in the world. Twitter is increasingly popular, and approaching five million users. Despite limited bandwidth, almost 70% of Internet users upload video to YouTube and virtually everyone watches videos posted there.

Surveys of commercial users of Internet services show that the Philippines offers low-cost, world-class communications infrastructure to business users and investors. However, consumers generally report a different set of circumstances. Consumer bandwidth in the Philippines is expensive compared to much more developed economies such as Singapore and South Korea, and consumers complain that connections are unstable and fail to provide promised bandwidth.

Comments at a recent forum of IT-BPO executives tend to support those claims. Executives said that communications with their employees outside the office is hindered by expensive and frequently unreliable Web infrastructure. A telecom executive present at the forum vowed to address the issue, and consumers and employers alike are waiting to see improvement.

As Japan’s case shows, reliable Web infrastructure is a real life-and-death issue. Given the poor condition of much of the Philippines’ aging fleet of military aircraft, patrol boats, and larger ships available for rescue operations, the capability of pinpointing individuals in distress is particularly urgent. If private telecom firms are slow to provide reliable infrastructure, government can accelerate deployment of affordable Web access with the provision of investment incentives and a more supportive regulatory environment.

Critics of social media suggest that their use is as frivolous as video games. But saving lives and putting people in touch is not a frivolous undertaking. The Philippines can do many things to prepare for disaster; ensuring Web access is one of the easiest and cheapest ways.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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