Forces of nature and innovation

14 Mar 2011

Originally built to withstand a nuclear war, the internet has proven itself to be an essential tool in helping people and nations cope with natural disasters, as the ongoing efforts in earthquake and tsunami-stricken Japan have proved, writes editor John Kennedy in his look back on the week.

The internet as we know it was born out of the Cold War era when the US, spooked by the technological lead the USSR demonstrated with the launch of Sputnik, worked to regain the technological lead.

The ongoing evolution of the internet through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s became as much a European triumph as it was a US breakthrough as evinced by Tim Berners-Lee in creating the World Wide Web in 1991 at CERN.

Last week at South by Southwest, Google’s Marissa Meyer revealed that every day around 35m miles are driven by motorists using Google Maps navigation, which goes to show you how far things have come in just a few decades, when the power of cloud and internet-based computing is right there in our hands.

The role of the internet, particularly sites like Facebook and Twitter, were revealed during the recent tumultuous events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, when it became a change agent for good.

Its worth was proven again last Friday, when Japan’s coast was ravaged first by an earthquake and then by a monster tsunami that swept all before it.

Google responded by making its person finder service available in Japanese. The service allows users to both request and post information about the safety of loved ones missing as a result of natural disasters.

Google Person Finder was originally launched after the 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch in New Zealand recently. Google has also launched an online crisis centre, providing real-time updates on the disaster in Japan.

As people in Europe awoke to the events that unfolded just hours earlier, messages on Twitter emanating from Japan were coming at a rate of 1,200 a minute.

Across the world, efforts have been made to ensure charities, such as the Red Cross, are provided with financial aid to help survivors. One example is social media site Ammado, which is harnessing its technology to drive funds to the Red Cross.

But for all the good the internet enables in telling the world what is happening, helping people to reunite with loved ones or sending aid to charities, the nasty side also began to appear on Friday afternoon when it emerged cyber criminals were exploiting the situation. Major security software vendors warned that SEO blackhat hackers are exploiting the catastrophe in Japan to infect users’ computers with malware for their own financial gains.

In the ongoing situation in Japan and amid the turbulent political events in North Africa, the internet has proven how invaluable it is to humanity.

The question going forward is how do we protect the internet and ourselves from exploitation and loss, and also ensure people’s noblest endeavours are safe-guarded?

At the same time, innovation must be encouraged and the amazing use of technologies like Google, Twitter, Facebook and many others in saving lives.

We truly live in remarkable but poignant times.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years