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How technologies have changed the way I deal with the Great East-Northern Japan Earthquake?

March 21, 2011 Leave a comment

I remember the president of Mitsui told me about why he started his pet IT project with me back at 2005. “My vision is that if Mitsui can function even during the great Tokyo earthquake, then we will be the number one company in the world. It all depends on how we handle unexpected events, not routines.” He believed that through business process management and hence process automation, Mitsui can function even during an unexpected disruption of unprecedented scale. While dealing with the aftermath of the recent events in Japan is certainly a bigger problem than trying to be the world’s number one company, it would be interesting to check back with him on how much his vision has achieved.

I was there at Kobe when the last earthquake hit with M7.9 at 1995. That quake had destroyed houses, freeway and brought down all the lamp posts around me in mere 15 sec. How did it feel in the recent event of which was a M8.9 (100 times stronger) hit for 6 minutes is way beyond my imagination. Nevertheless, information technology has leapfrogged in the past 16 years and I have noticed a lot of changes in how people in the world dealing with such an event. Back then, I had only been able to turn on my car engine and listen to the radio. I had not had any means to contact anyone. Had I been outside of Japan back then, I might not have known about the event till much later. Even if I had known, I could not have done much than being a sitting duck and praying.

Here are a few major changes that I noticed:

1. Respond faster through a Distributed rather than Centralized network

I was instant-messaging with a friend in Tokyo who told me an earthquake had just hit at 3/10 Thursday evening California time. I quickly did a Google search on “Japanese Earthquake” and I could not believe the number that I saw: M8.9. I thought there might be an error in the system. I then turned on TV and did other searches but there were very limited information to indicate a major disaster had just happened. Because of my experience in Kobe earthquake, I immediately knew that M8.9 could be a 100 times worse than what I had experienced back then. How should I confirm that before any images come on TV news? The next thing that I did was checking on Live Web Cam in Japan. Most of them were down but after several trials, I got some images of cars stopped in messy orientation at Tokyo downtown. I knew then that this was actually happening. I quickly posted on Facebook and emailed some friends to check with people whom I know. I spent the next few hours emailing, SMS, Skyping and twittering till I got tired and went to sleep. I did not get to see the horrible images of the Tsunami on TV till the next morning. Direct contact between individual devices that are loosely connected was definitely spreading information faster than a centralized architecture such as TV or radio broadcast.

2. Discover solutions on-the-fly through collaboration

I got a close relative living in Sendai who had not checked-in. I posted that on Facebook and quickly got several suggestions on how to locate him from my friends around the world. I then contacted his company through emergency line and we registered at Google people finder. I kept monitoring twitter and Facebook on minute-by-minute live events as people around Japan posted their feeds. We finally located him after more than 24 hours after the earthquake when one of his colleagues who identified him sent me a text message. That was such a relief. In reflection, it is not as easy for his colleague to send us a message because power to the mobile was such precious asset under the circumstance. My relative could not contact us because his phone was out of power.

3. Leverage Real-time monitoring across the globe

I thought I could catch my breath after I confirmed safety of all my friends and relatives but then come the news of the nuclear plant explosion. I have been keeping a look on the real-time radiation levels across multiple locations around the Fukushima nuclear plant through an official website.

4. Employ agent-based alert to catch and respond to events

I have also set to receive alert email on the aftershocks and how transportation systems are being affected. Based on this information, I do not have to hunt for information but being notified when events that I am interested in occur. I have hence adjusted the travel schedule accordingly.

5. Derive strategy through social media

It is interesting to point out that the rolling power outrage after the earthquake when Fukushima nuclear plant went down was first socialized through social media before putting into action. Social media was also used to gain support on the call for stopping panic buying. Irrational buying behavior was generally not observed and resulted in a big contrary to the run on salt and baby formula in some neighboring countries. (OK, I admit that part of this was owing to the very beautiful side of Japanese culture)

Internet, web, mobile devices, social media, Wi-Fi, physical sensors and webcams, event-driven alert and alarm, real-time monitoring from anywhere, all are indicating that democratization of information has replaced or complemented central broadcasting of news through TV and radio.

How about the manufacturing world?

It is kind of ironical to think of many global manufacturing companies that I am working with has not really leveraged much of the above mentioned technologies. Executives and managers still depend on occasionally bumping into colleagues at the hall way to discover whether the most critical machine in their supply chain is down. Even the enabling technologies are available, there is still limited sharing of best-practices manufacturing processes across geographic locations. KPI report upon which million dollars decisions are depended, are still weeks or sometimes months after the fact. The majority of the mobile devices, sensors and individual control units are not interconnected. Centralized systems like ERPs that depend on aggregating data and then broadcast a plan are still driving the majority of the manufacturing process. In wake of such an unexpected event that went beyond anyone’s imagination, I suppose that it is high time to ask: how well prepared is your organization for the next Tsunami?