For Kei Kawai, the first few days following Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami were a frantic, stressful time. From his Mountain View, California, base, he managed to confirm the safety of family members living throughout the tsunami-hit area with one exception: his grandfather.
Kawai turned to Google’s Person Finder for help and received confirmation of his grandfather’s safety the next day. Kawai wasn’t just another user—he’s a product manager at Google and had been working on deployment of the service in the aftermath of the disaster.
“That was a pretty powerful moment,” he said in an interview. “We’ve had a lot of feedback from users, we know that it’s working, but it’s a little different for yourself to see it working.”
Google’s response to the earthquake and massive tsunami was fast. About two hours after the 2:46pm earthquake, while towns up and down Japan’s eastern coast were still underwater and while the country was beginning to grasp the massive potential loss of life, the company launched Person Finder.
“We had employees on the ground who were experiencing the disasters first-hand and wanted to do something about it,” said Christine Chen, a Google spokeswoman. “Our company mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, and information about crises is included in that.”
Person Finder is an open database that tries to match requests for information about people with details on those affected. It was created in 2010 after the Haiti earthquake and grew out of the Google.org project, which seeks to use Google’s reach and expertise to build products and advocate for policies that address global challenges.
After Haiti, the database was deployed for earthquakes in Chile, China and New Zealand, but it never achieved as much success in those disasters as it did this time in Japan.
In Japan, the database grew to more than 616,000 records, which was well past the 77,100 for the Chile earthquake and 55,100 for Haiti.
But the numbers only tell half the story. Google managed to form partnerships with some of Japan’s biggest, most slow-moving and conservative companies and agencies to make the service the success it was.
The first came on March 16 when public broadcaster NHK began collaborating with Google. NHK goes to great lengths to remain neutral and generally does not mention company names in order to avoid appearing to play favorites. So it’s alliance with Google was as unprecedented as the situation Japan found itself in.
NHK decided to work with Google to widen the dissemination of its own data to a wider audience, said Reiko Saisho, a spokeswoman for the broadcaster. “We believe it is of benefit to people searching for missing persons to have they information on various media, and we believe Google, which has huge servers, is a suitable partner.”
The alliance meant the Person Finder address was regularly scrolled across the top of NHK’s main domestic TV channel—the single most trusted source of news during the disaster, according to a poll.
Within a few days, Google was also getting data from the National Police Agency and Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Then followed data from Fukushima prefectural government and the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
“It gradually became the de facto place,” said Kawai.
A unique addition came with the acceptance of photographs of lists of missing people or survivors that were posted at evacuation centers. Google staff would enter names from the photos by hand. The project eventually grew to around 10,000 pictures and Google expanded the effort to get assistance from volunteers.
Google’s success points to its growing strength in Japan. The company has never dominated the Japanese Internet market like it does in so many other countries — that position is held by Yahoo Japan — but Google has consistently plugged, established a large engineering and localization base here, and has been steadily winning friends and converts.
Last year it signed a major deal with Yahoo Japan to provide search results for use on the company’s portal. The deal annoyed Microsoft, which signed a similar deal for its Bing service to be used with Yahoo in the U.S. and many other countries, but it was approved by Japan’s antitrust regulator.
Google said the launch and success of Person Finder was independent of its commercial operations here.
“That hasn’t been our focus,” said Chen. “Our engineers started working within a few minutes of the earthquake hitting, and the focus has been on how to make relevant information accessible to the people who need it.”
Kawai says his experience has left him with new admiration for his employer and the power of technology.
‘It’s an honor, as a company, that we can do something for people who are in dire need of information,” he said. “We cannot really save direct lives, but we can fill the area of people looking for information.”
“If it were not for technology and the Internet, I can’t imagine [what I would have done],” he said.