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IT progress boosts safety confirmation services to aid communication during disasters

In this March 11, 2011 file photo taken directly after the Great East Japan Earthquake, people at Odakyu Machida Station in Tokyo wait in line to make calls on payphones. (Mainichi)

After the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 and the Kumamoto Earthquake in April 2016, there has been progress in safety confirmation services provided by information technology (IT) companies and the public and private installation of Wi-Fi in more locations to keep lines of communication open in times of emergency.

    A recent example is a new safety confirmation service from Line Corp., the operators of a free messaging application by the same name, which was released ahead of the sixth anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami disaster. The new Line damage report function on the messaging app sends a message from the company's official account to all users with information about a disaster and asks recipients to select one of three reply choices: "I'm hurt/in trouble," "I'm safe," or "I am not in the area." It then prompts users to post their responses on their "timeline" for their friends and family to see. The company has yet to use the new function, but the new service is attracting attention for its expected effectiveness, as Line app has roughly 66 million users nationwide.

    U.S. social media giant Facebook has also had a similar service to convey information about one's safety to friends and family since 2014, called "safety check." Facebook added a "community help" function to the service in February of this year, which allows users to search for information about food and water supply and evacuation centers as well as call for assistance in emergency situations.

    Images of the Line app emergency communication service are seen. Line Corp. sends a message to confirm the user's safety, left, and the user can also post their situation on their timeline, middle. The user's friends on the app can see their timeline updates. (Images courtesy of Line Corp.)

    Japanese telecommunication companies are also offering a voice message service that can be used for safety confirmation in large-scale disaster situations. NTT East and West and other mobile phone companies are jointly operating "Disaster Emergency Message Dial" 171 on phones, a "Disaster Emergency Message Board" that can be accessed through data on mobile phones and a web version of the message board called "web171" to make it easier to confirm the safety of loved ones. The service was developed because phone lines are often jammed with calls immediately after large-scale disasters.

    During the 2011 disaster, base transceiver stations suffered damage from the earthquake and tsunami that rendered mobile phones useless, causing chaos in trying to confirm the safety of people. That is why all major cell phone companies are offering free Wi-Fi during disasters in order to keep necessary lines of communication open. Those who need to use the service can access the network "00000JAPAN" (Five Zero Japan) on their laptop computers or mobile phones to connect to the free Wi-Fi.

    The service was first implemented during the Kumamoto Earthquake disaster. According to an online survey conducted by InfoCom Research Inc. about the use of the Wi-Fi during the disaster, 57.9 percent of respondents said that it was "very useful" in gathering information and as a method of communication and 35.6 percent said it was "relatively useful." When taken together, over 90 percent of those surveyed answered that the Five Zero Japan service was beneficial.

    Both government and private organizations are working together to increase the number of designated evacuation areas, museums, sites of cultural treasures, and other locations equipped with Wi-Fi. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications plans to increase the roughly 14,000 locations currently equipped with Wi-Fi as of October 2016 to approximately 30,000 locations by 2020. "We would like people to make use of Wi-Fi to acquire important information, such as when mobile phones will not connect during disaster situations," the ministry stated.

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