Big rocking movements woke me up. Although it felt like being on an ocean-liner in a storm, I was in fact on a futon on the tatami floor in my house, and the alarm clock showed ten minutes to six. I was experiencing yet another earthquake, although it was strangely slow moving this time.

As my room had no heating and the indoor temperature was close to freezing, I eventually crawled back onto my futon and fell asleep again. It wasn’t until several hours later that I realized I had experienced the worst earthquake in Japan since 1923.

Although the epicenter of this 1995 earthquake was in the vicinity of Kobe, it had woken me up 260 miles away, in the science city of Tsukuba, just northeast of Tokyo.

The woman who would eventually become my wife lived in Kobe. That morning, I tried and tried to call but the lines were all busy, and it took several hours until I managed to confirm that she was alive. What she lost was instead normalcy – and her job when her employer went bankrupt in the subsequent economic crash that hit Kobe.

Sixteen years later, we were living in Sweden. I had just initiated an Ericsson ConsumerLab research project in Japan when the Tohoku earthquake struck, this time with an epicenter outside Fukushima northeast of Tsukuba. I immediately decided to refocus our project on the effects of the earthquake.

Then I tried calling friends in Tokyo to convince them to flee the area. Having lived roughly 100 miles from the Fukushima nuclear power plant for many years, I had already experienced misinformation during previous incidents, and was not about to believe official statements this time round.

At first lines were busy – but when I eventually got through, my Japanese friends did not seem to heed my warnings. Only later, I found out that some had actually listened and left Tokyo. However, they had kept quiet about it, so as not to contribute to the spreading of rumors and, in the process, cause others to panic.

In Ericsson ConsumerLab’s 10 Hot Consumer Trends for 2016, the Emergency Chat trend concludes that 65 percent of smartphone owners are interested in an emergency app, which would alert them in a crisis or disaster, and provide verified, rumor-free information. And in situations like the ones I have just described, rumors spread incredibly quickly: phones don’t work; TV news is not specific enough; time is short.

 

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Although many of us view social media as a major source of rumors, it was in fact the need for rumor-free information during the Tohoku earthquake that drove social media services into the mainstream in Japan. As an example, Twitter released data showing a 500 percent surge in Twitter use immediately after the earthquake. Also, the video service “Nico Nico Douga,” which  allowed for social commentary on top of the video feed, quickly rose in prominence.

One man we interviewed in the Ericsson ConsumerLab research project told us he tried to flee the tsunami. He managed to get in touch with people nearby via a social networking service – using the same phone that was just giving him a busy signal when trying to call – who told him they had found a multi-story building on higher ground. With their instructions, he managed to locate the building and although he had to swim part of the way, managed to get there. He told us that the social networking service saved his life.

In our research, one in two people believe emergency centers will be contactable via social media in as little as three years – and social networking service providers have been quick to respond. When the terrorist attacks happened in Paris last November, it was the first time that Facebook enabled its Safety Check function in an emergency that was not a natural disaster.

But are authorities networking emergency response? What networked emergency services do they see as mandatory? What laws will they need to change? Are they considering the ramifications of a free-of-charge data service corresponding to emergency numbers like 112 and 911?