ITU Telecom World 2011 was held in Geneva, Switzerland from October 24th through 27th. It was the 40th anniversary of the first ever ITU Telecom event and featured session on the role of ICT in changing lives and driving growth. At The Perfect Storm session, Satoshi Miura, President and CEO, NTT, discussed the future of social media, based on experience gained from the earthquake in Japan.
Session title: “The Perfect Storm”
Time & date: 9:00-10:30, October 26th 2011(local time)
The world witnessed how social media played a pivotal role in the recent uprisings across the Middle East and the catastrophic earthquake in Japan. Dr. A. Reza Jafari, the Chairman and CEO of e-Development International, chaired the forum session, The Perfect Storm, discussing firsthand accounts of events in Egypt and Japan, and exploring the future of social media.
H.E. Dr. Mohamed Salem, Minister of Communications, Egypt, described the events in Egypt and the current increase in Facebook usage among the public as well as the government. And Satoshi Miura, President and CEO, NTT, talked about the damage caused by the earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdowns and power outages. Also he shared lessons learned during the disaster about social media and ICT. Juliana Rotich, CEO of Ushahidi, explained how the open source platform which she established for sharing updates via mobile devices became a vital help in Japan. Also, Florie Brizel, CEO, Brizel Media explained her view of mobile communications as a driver of profound change and innovation, not just a technology.
First of all, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for your generous support from all over the world at the time of the earthquake in Japan. And, I'd like to express my heartfelt sympathy to those affected by the heavy flood in Thailand and the recent earthquake in Turkey.
As you already know, on March 11, a catastrophic earthquake and deadly tsunami hit eastern Japan. Networks and mobile base stations were destroyed or submerged by the tsunami. Even worse, a massive power failure shut down communication facilities. As a national flag carrier, NTT group made an all-out effort to restore the damaged infrastructure, and full service was back by the end of April.
In addition, NTT group provided ICT help for reconstruction, including message boards for safety confirmation and portal websites for sharing information. Moreover, we supported public services by ICT, such as remote health consultations, online learning, and more.
So, what about social media during the disaster? On the positive side, social media played a key role in sharing updates quickly. It also facilitated collaboration with local communities and organizations for rescue and recovery.
On the other hand, we experienced the dark side. Some information was distorted in spreading from person to person. Misinformation circulated rapidly around the globe, with harmful results.
Aside from the good and the bad, we were confronted by some limitations of social media. Due to the huge amount of inputs, it was hard for users to find the information they needed. Also, there were divide issues, especially among the elderly.
So, what did the disaster teach us? I’d like to mention three points based on our experience.
First, we realized how heavily we rely on networks – for everyday life as well as for emergencies. In fact, we could not use social media where the infrastructure was down. So, we will need to develop disaster-resistant networks and prompt recovery methods.
Second, ICT needs to be even more integrated into our society and daily lives. When I visited the disaster areas, I saw problems that could have been avoided with more ICT, such as digitalized medical records, personal information available by cloud computing.
Finally, the more social media becomes widespread, the more social media increases its usefulness and influence. We can use a combination of both social and traditional media, because they complement each other. Moreover, as receivers and senders of information, we need to utilize social media with the understanding that there may be misinformation. Therefore, the further development of social media depends on how effectively we use it.
I’d like to make a distinction between what actually happened in the disaster affected areas, and other areas such as in Tokyo.
In the disaster affected areas, some 14,000 base stations around Japan experienced disruptions in their services. And about 400 fixed line base stations or nodes were swept away by the tsunami. So, there was a certain window of time when even social media could not function because there were no facilities in place.
As for Tokyo, there was voice traffic congestion because people wanted to make phone calls to confirm the safety and whereabouts of their loved ones. Because voice communications were up 50 or 60 fold, we had to restrict or control traffic through our circuit switching network to protect it. On the other hand, we found that communication was relatively more stable in the case of the packet switching network. So, one phenomenon we witnessed was that social media use was quite prominent during the earthquake.
What people wanted was information, especially about the safety of their loved ones – were they alive, were they not alive and where were they? After that, people wanted information on relief supplies, energy resources, and daily necessities. One thing we saw was that when people were faced with such a critical situation, they helped each other. For example, Google’s person finder and the Ushahidi, an open source site, were set up on the very day of the earthquake and enabled people to have access to information. NTT group also set up portal sites as a way of support.
I’ll talk about two preparedness measures for the future.
First, we need to set up disaster-resilient networks. We have five submarine cables connecting the US and Japan, and four of them were disconnected by the earthquake. To safeguard, setting up multi-channel communication routes would be one way to prepare for the situation. Also we experienced battery depletion, so extending battery hours would be another method. Further, we are contemplating so-called large-zone schemes with extended coverage and backup from new high-powered mobile base stations.
Second, we’re tackling a new, easy-to-use service that converts voice to data and can even be used during disasters when voice traffic is busy. During the earthquake, people could confirm the safety and whereabouts of loved ones through social media. But, we received feedback that people wanted to hear the voices of their loved ones over the phone. So we are now developing a service that will enable that, even during a major earthquake.
As you know, the recent disaster in Japan involved not just the earthquake, or the tsunami, but also the nuclear power plant accident in Fukushima.
One result was harmful rumors about food safety. The misinformation was spread that all the food in Japan was contaminated. I believe that there is an urgent need to deliver accurate information about food safety and radiation.
I think we must be aware that there is a downside to the media, not just mass media, but also social media. And I believe that all stakeholders including governments, mass media, and social media, need to make efforts to provide accurate information.
First of all, we could not have predicted 20 years ago what is possible today, and in the same vein, we cannot predict what is going to happen in 20 years. I think that’s the common understanding among all of us.
But, as was discussed earlier, there is complementarity between social media and mass media, and we are seeing an even greater degree of convergence between the two. And I believe that in the ICT universe, convergence is becoming the key word. For example, broadcasting and telecommunication convergence, as well as fixed and mobile convergence are progressing. And it’s not limited to media and communications. With an increase in convergence between ICT and other sectors such as autos, finance, and medical care, we believe that new services and new types of usage will go forward.
So, if convergence of ICT with other sectors is to expand further, I believe that ICT could help provide solutions for various social challenges, such as the aging society, a declining birth rate, and energy shortages. In other words, network carriers like ourselves should not be just providers of networks. We should be providers of solutions to various social challenges.