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Techie Talk: Tech companies and Japan

The recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami have left much of Japan devastated. It’s been two weeks since the first earthquake hit the country, and coping with the unthinkable disaster is a daily struggle. After the initial earthquake and numerous aftershocks, much of Tokyo ground to a halt. Transportation systems stopped—train lines, taxis, buses, and other modes of mass transit sat idle. Virtually everyone who commuted to the city had no way to get home and few ways to communicate to loved ones and friends that they were safe. Apple Inc.’s Tokyo store decided to stay open for this very reason. There are very few free wireless hot spots in the city, and the Apple Store happens to be one of them.After the quake, employees encouraged people to use the display computers, iPhones, iPads and everything else in the store—no, not to play Angry Birds, but to contact family and friends via Facebook, Twitter, and email to let them know they were OK.

The staff brought out surge protectors and cell phone adapters so people could charge their personal mobile phones. After they finally closed the store’s doors at 10 p.m., crowds gathered outside and used the Wi-Fi signal into the night.

Many of the store’s employees stayed with them, teaching people how to get in touch and read news on their mobiles.

But this story isn’t unique; many tech companies like Apple have felt motivated to lend a helping hand. Google, the company whose long-time motto is “Don’t be evil,” was one of the first to respond too.

The company has setup a website allowing survivors to get in contact with friends or family who have not yet been found. The “Person Finder” plainly asks, “What is your situation?

Users are able to click one of two options: “I’m looking for someone” or “I have information about someone.” Also, users are able to search for the missing by entering their name or mobile phone number.

The service is currently available in five languages and so far over 257,000 million records have been filed. In Google style it’s all free, no Google account required.

Google’s YouTube has also created a “Missing Person Finder” channel with videos from survivors stranded in shelters around the country. The videos were shot by TBS, a television station in Japan, and more stations plan on adding videos too. According to the channel description, the effort hopes to help separated families get in touch with their missing loved ones and motivate viewers to donate to recovery efforts.

Even Microsoft has pitched in by givine free temporary software licenses to governmental and disaster response organizations as they begin to put the country back together.

These innovative efforts are widespread in the American tech industry—dozens of other technology companies are finding their own unique ways to pitch in to help the country too.

In the last two weeks, a lot of good from around the world has been directed at helping the Japanese people, but I’m most proud of how American tech companies. Not because they’ve donated the most money—they haven’t—but because they’ve deployed their traditional spirit of innovation to help the Japanese people in the most important ways.

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