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A number of companies in and around Sendai are launching disaster technology businesses — such as apps to track people at evacuation shelters and relief supplies — thanks to initiatives by the city.

Sendai has launched programs to help these tech companies in the region partner up with major companies at home and abroad.

But key to the businesses’ success is the apps and software being used in everyday life, not just in times of disaster.

Relief supplies

During an online briefing run by Sendai in August 2020 on disaster prevention technology, an official at Co-op Tohoku Sun Net Business Federation spoke about the difficulties of arranging relief supplies for 4 million people in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters.

“At that time we were flooded with orders for relief supplies from local governments via phone, email and fax. And when they were delivered, we had tons of invoices to issue,” the official said.

In the days after the 3/11 disaster, the company received orders from local governments, many of which were vague — such as “food for 100 people.” It then contacted municipalities, which in turn contacted shelters, for more information, meaning it took a lot of time to confirm each order.

To address that problem, Prime Value, a digital content producer based in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, has partnered with communication platforms provider NEC Platforms to create a system for the smooth delivery of food and daily necessities to evacuation centers.

Their prototype is expected to be launched by the end of the fiscal year.

Since local government officials are not always tech-savvy, Prime Value’s system allows orders to be placed by phone, fax or the internet.

“Maybe we’re going against the trend of the times, but the most important feature is that it allows for the placing and receiving of orders even using conventional methods,” said Ryoji Yoshida, 36, president of Prime Value.

The system converts information about orders placed via phone and fax into its digital format. For that to happen, the key is standardizing the order form.

When placing an order for food supplies online, municipalities will select “food,” and then “staple food” and go on to “rice balls,” for instance.

When the orders are placed by phone, people will connect to an automated system and use touch tones to enter the numbers that match their choices. Fax users can fill out an order sheet, while the fax receiver can use a special feature that can read handwritten text and place the order.

But according to Yoshida, both parties ー the municipality and the relief goods supplier ー need to use the same format when handling the order.

“The accuracy of the format directly affects the accuracy of the order. Discussing the details in advance would better prepare them for emergencies,” Yoshida stressed.

The company also aims to create a database of previous order records to help grasp what kind of relief supplies and nutritiously balanced foods are needed during emergencies.

Apps for evacuation centers

Meanwhile, software developer Andex Co. in Sendai is developing two systems: a smartphone app to guide people to evacuation centers and another piece of software that can be used to support the operation of the centers.

When the smartphone app receives a disaster warning from the central government through the J-Alert system, the app shows the route to the nearest evacuation shelter using a tourism app Andex developed.

Users can post photos and comments about collapsed buildings and blocked streets caused by the disaster. If users register each other as family members, they can also check where their family members have been evacuated.

The other piece of software is equipped with artificial intelligence, which uses video footage to recognize the gender, age and number of people in a shelter. The information can then be used to determine the amount of supplies needed in the initial relief effort.

In 2018, Andex obtained a license for regional broadband mobile wireless access, which in principle is granted only to one operator in each municipality. Even if mobile carriers restrict calls in times of disaster, Andex will not be affected, giving the company an advantage over its rivals.

Currently, the company has 17 base stations in Sendai, as the area where the services are currently provided is limited. But the company plans to increase the number to 500 stations in the next two years to cover 95% of the local population.

“Winning the confidence of users is the biggest challenge for us,” said Jun Mishima, 54, the president of the company. “The first step is to get local governments to use it.”

5G and heavy traffic

System developer Trek Co. is offering a service aimed at supporting the operations of evacuation centers. Using tablets installed at the entrance of the evacuation center, the system recognizes the faces of evacuees and sends data on their age and gender to local governments.

Thanks to the 5G high-speed network, larger amounts of data can be sent more quickly. The service can notify residents of where their family members have evacuated based on their photos, and share information on how crowded shelters are.

Such information is expected to help local governments streamline the process of accepting evacuees and make sharing related data easier.

Trek started developing the system following the torrential rain triggered by Typhoon Hagibis in October 2019.

“If there were no vacancies at the evacuation center, I would have to wait in the storm for a long time,” one of the younger employees said. “I didn’t go to the evacuation center because I was worried that could be the case.”

Despite the benefits of the system, Trek has struggled to make it profitable.

Tatsuki Komesu, 32, an engineer at the company, came up with the idea of the system being used for other purposes at elementary schools, where many evacuation centers are established.

He suggested that students could use the system for disaster prevention classes. It could also be used to monitor classrooms to avoid them becoming crowded in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“I’m trying to come up with ideas to use the system that will directly generate profit,” he said.

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published July 10.

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