Quake-prone Japanese area runs disaster system on Force.com

Japan's central Shizuoka Prefecture put a disaster management system on Salesforce.com's platform-as-a-service offering

A coastal region of Japan due for a major earthquake and possible tsunamis has implemented a cloud-based disaster management system run by Salesforce.com.

Shizuoka Prefecture, on Japan's eastern coast in the central region of the country, lies curled around an undersea trough formed by the junction of two tectonic plates. It has been rocked by repeated large temblors in past centuries, collectively called "Tokai earthquakes," and the central government has warned that with underground stresses high another is imminent.

The local prefectural government began to build a new disaster management system last year, the initial version of which went live in July. It is based on Salesforce.com's platform-as-a-service offering, Force.com, which hosts hundreds of thousands of applications.

"It would have cost a lot more to run our own servers and network, and if a disaster happened managing something like that would be very difficult, especially if the prefecture office was damaged," said Keisuke Uchiyama, a Shizuoka official who works with the system.

Japanese prefectures are the rough equivalent of states.

The system is currently hosted on Salesforce.com's servers in the U.S. and goes live when an official disaster warning is issued by the government. It links up information about key infrastructure such as roads, heliports and evacuation centers.

Salesforce.com says it combines GIS (geographic information system) data with XML sent from Japan's Meteorological Agency. Users can also send email updates from the field using their mobile phones, with GPS coordinates and pictures attached.

Uchiyama said the original plan was to allow open access, but budget cuts forced that to be postponed and it is now available only to government workers and disaster-related groups. The system was implemented with a budget of about 200 million yen (US$2.6 million) over its first two years, down from an original allotment of about 500 million yen over three years.

He said it was used to keep track of the situation last week when a powerful typhoon swept through central Japan.

The obvious downside to a hosted system is that key infrastructure is often destroyed during natural disasters. After the powerful earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan's northeastern coast in March, some seaside towns were completely devastated and went weeks without basics like power or mobile phone service. Local communities turned to word-of-mouth and public bulletin boards to spread information and search for survivors.

"If the network gets cut, it's over," said Uchiyama.

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Jay Alabaster

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