IBM volunteers in Japan bring smart, frugal solution to area hit by tsunami

Story of service • Japan • July 2013


IBM volunteers at a temporary office
in the summer of 2011 inputting
residents’ information from the
town of Otsuchi. The final digitized
registry enabled better support and
delivery of services after the area
was devastated by the Great East
Japan earthquake and tsunami.
On March 11, 2011 a massive earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan created a tsunami that reached heights of more than 130 feet and obliterated many coastal communities in Japan. The events caused thousands of casualties, washed away or seriously damaged nearly 130,000 buildings, and left more than 4 million households without electricity and 1.5 million without water.

Among other relief efforts by IBM, its research group in Tokyo responded with an initiative called Act for Japan with Innovation (AFJI) to encourage scientists and researchers to help people affected by the disaster, and to consider innovative technologies for the disaster relief efforts.

Masayoshi Teraguchi, an IBM researcher in Tokyo working on Smarter Cities solutions, and other IBM team members decided to visit an area affected by the tsunami through a volunteer initiative organized by IBM's Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs team in Japan to assist with clean-up activities.

The volunteers went to Otsuchi, a town on the northeastern coast of Japan, where the tsunami had destroyed the harbor and virtually all of the fishing boats, completely wiping out the town's sea farm industry. The mayor of the town was one of the victims, leaving the area in need of leadership and administrative help. "I was very surprised as almost all the buildings had been swept away," recalls Masayoshi, or Masa has he's known. "After seeing this, I really wanted to support the reconstruction of the Otsuchi area in some way."

Frugal IT delivers valuable aid

Since the disaster, more than 100 volunteers from IBM in Japan have supported a two-part project working closely with the Otsuchi Social Welfare Council. The first part involved physical labor including removing rubble and preparing temporary housing for the residents. "It was my first contact with the Otsuchi Social Welfare Council, an excellent organization of people who had personal difficulties because of the tsunami but were working hard to help others," says Masa. However, he realized that much of the Council's good work was manual. "I thought some of our experience working on what we call 'frugal IT' could really help and this motivated me to understand how I could support them."

Frugal IT can be described as solutions that are just "good enough" to produce positive results—creatively applying technology that is effective. Masa's observation and that of his fellow volunteers led to the second part of their activities based on the AFJI initiative to apply innovative technologies to the relief effort—the Otsuchi Residents Data Entry Project. The project's objective was to create a database of 2,000 families suffering from the disaster to replace the manual process of collecting and keeping paper files including life and health information for those who stayed at shelters and temporary houses. Masa and five other IBM employee volunteers led the data entry project and were joined by about 30 more volunteers from IBM.

The volunteer leadership team approached the project as they would a typical client engagement. Mayuko Taki, an IBM industry consultant, led the first phase listening and documenting the Council's needs, then consolidating their requirements. Three team members from IBM Research —Masaki Ono, Shin Saito and Masa—worked on the solution based on the client needs, while Takanobu Mori, an IBM network specialist, ensured a sound network infrastructure for the team. Importantly, Masashi Ueda, a business programs manager, provided relationship and partnership management between Otsuchi Social Welfare Council and IBM. The other volunteers performed the vital tasks of digitizing residents' hand-written information in a scanned image of the survey and verifying there were no mistakes or contradictions in the digitized information.

"I believe that thinking about technology first, does not solve the actual problem," says Masa. "Understanding the necessity first and considering adaptation of technology to what is needed is very important to make a project sustainable."

Bright and encouraging

Based on the digitalized data, staff members of the Otsuchi Social Welfare Council were able to focus on their primary mission to assess the needs of the local residents, collaborate with care managers, and oversee volunteer management. The division lead of operations for the Council said that their productivity was clearly increased and was more effective and efficient because of the assistance from IBM. During the confused situation after the disaster, they would not have been able to manage the victims' data digitalization without IBM's technical and project management support.

"Through this project, I am strongly convinced of the importance and urgency of IT support which allows people, anywhere, in remote locations to join a volunteer effort," says Masa. "My two last visits to Otsuchi and the Otsuchi Social Welfare Council are filled with better memories—the people there are always so bright and encouraging."

Masa Teraguchi and the five volunteer leaders working with Otsuchi Social Welfare Council are winners of the 2012 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award which recognizes IBM employees and teams who best exemplify the IBM values of dedication, innovation and trust through their volunteer efforts.

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