As the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake approached, the media again rallied to pay tribute to the tragedy’s victims, whether dead or alive. Many of the latter are still in limbo, unsure of their future since the events of that day wiped out much of their past. The tone of the coverage is bitter rather than hopeful, a function of the media’s mission to confront authority with its failures but also a manifestation of its natural predilection for melodrama. Amidst all this finger-pointing and hand-wringing, is it possible to learn anything useful?

Some information technology firms, media organizations and manufacturers combined resources last September for a project called Shinsai Big Data. Shinsai means “earthquake disaster,” and the “big data” is the information that was tracked on that fateful day from mobile phones, car navigation systems and social media. The volume was massive, and making sense of all the darting vectors and spinning integers is a daunting task, but experts in various information and infrastructure disciplines has been sifting through it all, not only to understand what happened on the ground that day but also what sort of measures can be implemented to prevent the same scale of suffering when it happens again. And it will happen again.

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