April 14, 2011, 8:54 AM — For Kei Kawai, the first few days following Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami were a frantic, stressful time. From his Mountain View, California, base, he managed to confirm the safety of family members living throughout the tsunami-hit area with one exception: his grandfather.
Kawai turned to Google's Person Finder for help and received confirmation of his grandfather's safety the next day. Kawai wasn't just another user -- he's a product manager at Google and had been working on deployment of the service in the aftermath of the disaster.
"That was a pretty powerful moment," he said in an interview. "We've had a lot of feedback from users, we know that it's working, but it's a little different for yourself to see it working."
Google's response to the earthquake and massive tsunami was fast. About two hours after the 2:46pm earthquake, while towns up and down Japan's eastern coast were still underwater and while the country was beginning to grasp the massive potential loss of life, the company launched Person Finder.
"We had employees on the ground who were experiencing the disasters first-hand and wanted to do something about it," said Christine Chen, a Google spokeswoman. "Our company mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful, and information about crises is included in that."
Person Finder is an open database that tries to match requests for information about people with details on those affected. It was created in 2010 after the Haiti earthquake and grew out of the Google.org project, which seeks to use Google's reach and expertise to build products and advocate for policies that address global challenges.
After Haiti, the database was deployed for earthquakes in Chile, China and New Zealand, but it never achieved as much success in those disasters as it did this time in Japan.
In Japan, the database grew to more than 616,000 records, which was well past the 77,100 for the Chile earthquake and 55,100 for Haiti.
But the numbers only tell half the story. Google managed to form partnerships with some of Japan's biggest, most slow-moving and conservative companies and agencies to make the service the success it was.
The first came on March 16 when public broadcaster NHK began collaborating with Google. NHK goes to great lengths to remain neutral and generally does not mention company names in order to avoid appearing to play favorites. So it's alliance with Google was as unprecedented as the situation Japan found itself in.