It's been close to a year since a monstrous 9.0-magnitude earthquake nearly disappeared Japan off the map. While the country has recovered some over the past year, the haunting reminders of the earthquake's wrath are still evident along the eastern seaboard. Following Google Maps' before-and-after presentations of the northeast coast of Japan, or at least what remained of it, one recalls without effort the abject terror that surged through Japan and, further, the rest of the world in the wake of the disaster.
A friend of mine's husband happened to be in Japan last year when the earthquakes ravaged the country. I distinctly recall her panicked posts to Facebook pleading for any kind of update about her husband, any beacon that might relay to her a comfort in knowing that her husband was still alive. In fact, those posts were how I first heard about the earthquake.
The posts continued for a couple of days until she finally had confirmation that her husband was safe and uninjured; he'd been further north than the epicenter of the earthquake and managed to miss the worst of it. Still, it gives me a chill to even remember this voyeuristic experience of someone else's worst fears played out on Facebook's stage.
I have no doubts that she was not the only person making fear-clutched posts to Facebook in hopes of connecting with their loved ones or at least someone with information pertaining to their loved ones. As if realizing how people have come to depend on Facebook as one of the ways to get in touch with people in the wake of a disaster, Facebook has begun testing a Disaster Message Board (in Japan, not-so-coincidentally). The test was spotted by Rick Martin of Penn Olson, who managed to grab a couple of screen shots of what the Disaster Message Board looks like.
As you can see, notification of the Disaster Message Board seems to operate as a sticky post that stays at the top of your Facebook news feed. Within the panel of the Board, users can follow links to the actual page and post updates, news, comments, or whatever else they want as it pertains to the stated disaster.
Martin relates his first-hand experience with testing the Board:
Users have the ability to mark friends as ‘safe,’ and also to declare that you’re safe as well. You can also filter by city, school, workplace, or hometown, to find and mark other individuals who you know to be safe. You can also leave comments to let others know how that person is doing (which is particularly useful, even if that person is not so active on Facebook). You can also ask about a certain person you might be worried about, and their friends (who might not be your friends) can reply.
Several sites, including Martin's piece on Penn Olson, have been linking to a Facebook Disaster Message Board but that link doesn't appear to be working any longer, leaving me to presume that Facebook has concluded with testing the service. However, a Facebook spokesperson shared a statement with WebProNews regarding the service:
We launched a feature called Disaster Message Board in Japan that enables friends to easily let each other know how they are doing during an emergency. With the Disaster Message Board, people can mark themselves safe with a simple click, search for their friends, and share what they know about a friend. The feature will become available only during an emergency and is only currently available in Japan at this time.
I can't help but think of my friend and how this tool might have been of use to her last year. Of course, the usefulness of the Disaster Message Board is contingent on whether the afflicted area still has communication access to Facebook, whether mobile or via internet, but that's not really the point here. A dedicated message board that uses Facebook to basically shoot out a flare to the world and let your friends and family know you're okay (or let them know you're not okay, for that matter) is a welcome device that I hope people will find useful.
Truthfully, it'd be preferable to think that we won't ever need to use Facebook's Disaster Message Board but that kind of fantasizing is a fool's errand.