From ruins to recovery
Haifa researcher joins CSC post-tsunami recovery efforts in Sendai
"It was wonderful to see a city so alive and vibrant. It's hard to believe that just months ago, so much of it was straining to recover from the huge earthquake and the tsunami in Japan," said Gilad Saadoun, scientist at IBM Research – Haifa.
Saadoun has just returned from a three-week trip to Sendai, Japan as an emissary for IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge. This grant program is led by IBM Corporate Citizenship in an effort to help 100 cities around the world become more livable. His professional background includes experience as an analyst for the Israel Defense Forces, management positions in the BizTEC Israel National Entrepreneurship Competition, and work for IBM in the areas of eGovernance and cloud tooling. Outside work, Saadoun's warmth and enthusiasm extend to the local community, where he volunteers in programs to promote entrepreneurship and education among students and youth.
As part of a six-person IBM team from around the world, Saadoun set out to help communicate the efforts to re-zone areas of Sendai affected by the disaster and provide recommendations about how to leverage the recovery momentum to revive the city. During this effort, the team provided input on how to engage the citizens, in the affected areas and in other parts of the city. The team also offered recommendations on how to convey the sense of recovery to the people in Japan and the world.
Devastation to rebirth
On 11 March 2011, a 9.0 earthquake and a subsequent major tsunami hit Sendai. Although the city's center was able to recover within a month, other areas reported major damage, especially on the coast. Hundreds were killed, and countless more were injured or left homeless.
"Our main job was to help city officials find a way to approach these 8000 inhabitants along the coast," explained Saadoun. "It was important they understand that the area was no longer safe and that they needed to move out so they could be protected. This was no easy task for a community that is based on fishery and agriculture – where people are both physically, economically, and emotionally connected to land that has been in their families for generations."
"Our goal was to provide the citizens with a broader vision and an understanding of the city's strategy for the coming years," noted Saadoun. "We had to make sure our plans for outreach were in line with the Japanese culture, while taking into account best practices and mistakes made in similar aftermath disaster situations like 9-11, the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, and the hurricanes in New Orleans."
The team created a three-phase plan for the city official, recommending how to engage the people in the affected area, while embracing the Japanese community's need to maintain privacy and avoid conflict.
- Information updates for large groups – This involved showing citizens simulations of the tsumani and providing guidelines on the important issues and information that had been missing, such as compensation for the coastal inhabitants.
- Specific needs of families – The team suggested meetings with small groups of three or four families at a time. These meetings would be held with trusted facilitators, such as social workers, to discuss the specific situations of these families and how the general information was relevant to them.
- Group discussion lead by the local community leaders (Jichikai) – This phase will consist of meetings for community associations to discuss issues as a group.
The team also suggested that the meetings be held on weekends and include activities to keep children busy so parents could focus on the new information. All of the recommendations gathered by the IBM team were consolidated in a report to help city officials understand the best practices for their situations.
"It's difficult for people to understand the meaning of having water three meters deep covering everything," Saadoun continued. "With the help of Peter Bak from our Haifa visualization team, we were able to recommend how to present the simulation results so they had more applicative meaning. For example, instead of presenting the level of the water, we show whether the area is safe to live or work in."
Saadoun also used his experience in Gov 2.0 to explain how IT tools could be used to better interact with the citizens over the longer term and during future disasters. The team found out the city government hadn't been publishing information about its amazing recovery work, leaving the citizens with no sense of the "rebirth" going on. The team recommended having the the city website show the "before" and "after" recovery situations. The city communication manager clearly understood the point made and agreed with the new strategy.
The process was an eye-opener for everyone involved. For Saadoun, it was a fascinating peek into an entirely different culture and mode of operation. "For example, in the western world a person making a presentation uses a top down approach, laying out the objectives first and then explaining. In our meetings, they first explained the problems and only later went to explain the recommendation, so the city officials could decide by themselves. Another interesting phenomenon is that no one interrupts the speaker with questions or comments. Coming from Israel, where everyone just jumps into the discussion as they see fit, this was a very new experience."
"It felt good to see what activities IBM is doing around the world to help people and how it impacts the society,' Saadoun stated warmly. "It was also very encouraging to see a city and people so alive and pulsing—it's very different from the preconceptions we had in mind."