When the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan last March, the disaster killed more than 15,000 people and caused immeasurable property damage. It also seriously damaged the reputation of science. The Japanese people had been assured by scientists that their nuclear reactors were safe and that they were well protected from the threat of tsunamis.
IBM Research-Tokyo has taken on the mission of helping to better understand and react to natural disasters. But that’s not all. “In addition to responding to the disaster, one of our biggest concerns is repairing the image of science,” says Norishige Morimoto, director of the Tokyo lab. “We want to show people that science and technology aren’t just for improving efficiency and corporate profits. They can and should contribute to the quality of life and to society.”
Morimoto, who has been the lab director since 2009, uses the term “resilient society” to describe the broader benefits that science can deliver through better access to data and understanding of data, and sophisticated analysis that can lead to better decision making at the time of the emergency. Innovation for a Resilient Society is the theme of the IBM Research Colloquium that the lab is conducting today at Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. The Colloquium is an IBM Centennial program designed to convene at IBM Research labs thought leaders – including leading researchers and scientists, academics, public policy makers and key IBM clients — for a series of talks and panel discussions on future, transformative technologies and platforms and their potential impact on the world. In addition to Morimoto, leading thinkers from IBM, academia and industry will speak to an audience of more than 100 leaders in society about the future of space exploration, healthcare, transportation and society.
After the quake and tsunami, Morimoto redirected a team of IBM researchers to develop technologies that will help governments and people better prepare for disaster, respond better when disaster strikes, and help to make the necessary policy decisions and investments that will benefit society over the long term. The work is exactly aligned with IBM’s Smarter Planet agenda. The scientists are using advanced data gathering, collaboration and analytics technologies to create tools that will make it easier for people to understand and manage the complex natural and human systems that are related to earthquakes, tsunamis and floods.
Japan already has a sophisticated alert system that notifies people by SMS to their mobile telephones when the beginning of an earthquake is sensed. But people don’t always respond with the urgency that’s required. The Tokyo researchers are developing a system for creating disaster simulations that will show people graphically what could happen if disasters strike in their locations–so they can develop the mindset to respond to this kind of warning quickly.
Some Japanese cities are adopting an open-source disaster management system, Sahana, and IBM researchers are helping adapt it for use throughout the country. Their focus is on creating an interface that makes it possible for citizens, emergency response officials and support groups to access the portal using smart phones. The researchers are also developing techniques for harnessing social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook for post-disaster communications.
In addition, IBM researchers are exploring the possibility of creating tools to help government officials, scientists, planners and industry experts gather immense amounts of data from numerous sources in a wide variety of forms — including numbers, text and video — and use the data to simulate outcomes from various kinds of natural events.
Morimoto says global collaboration is shaping up to be one of the vital elements of disaster preparedness and response. “We get assets and solutions from other parts of the world, and we share what we learn and create,” he says.