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Chapter 5. Towards the Future

We sometimes face situations in which people’s entire daily lives are destroyed by large-scale disasters. At the same time, one may lose memories and records of a life. We saw the loss of the evidence of people’s entire lives in the major earthquake and tsunami of an unbelievable scale that struck the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.
When people’s lives end, photos become the evidence of their existence. Whether the photos are in paper or digital form, they become records and evidence of people having lived in a particular place with others.
We realized the fundamental significance of photos and threw ourselves into action to save lost photos. We were able to return photos, although just a small part, to the waiting disaster survivors.
Now that this project ended, we are reviewing our photo restoration activities in terms of improvements and what we can do in the future. Through ‘The Story of the “Save the Memory Project,”’ we have compiled a report as a “record of facts.” In this last chapter, we would like to present recommendations to improve measures for recovering lost photos and how photos should be handled in our daily lives.

(1) To recover lost photos

■Clarification on jurisdiction of the national and local governments

Individually owned photos are very precious and irreplaceable to their owners; the people in them; and others involved. However, in general, those photos are not valuable in terms of property. Even if photos lost in a large-scale disaster are reported as found articles and are handled as “lost property”, under the Japanese Lost Property Act, it would actually be very difficult for administrative units alone to return those photos to their owners for the following reasons.

  • There is an extremely large number of photos which are found articles.
  • It is inappropriate to keep and display photos ruined with mud.
  • It is difficult to identify and confirm the individuals who lost photos in a confused situation such as right after natural disasters.
  • Found articles include a huge number of “significant property (mainly property with a value of more than 10,000 yen)” and it is important how to handle those items.
  • If local governments ask other organizations for cooperation in cleaning operations and returning activities, responsibility is usually unclear.
  • There are no guidelines on privacy considerations in conducting returning activities.

Therefore, it is desirable to formulate exceptional measures and guidelines in advance to ensure that individual administrative units can take necessary actions in the event of a large-scale disaster.
Immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami struck the Tohoku region, the Japanese government notified disaster-affected prefectures of the guidelines for removing rubble and the guidelines included items for handling lost photos.

“Buddhist mortuary tablets, photo albums, and any other items recognized as being of value to the owner or other relevant individuals shall not be discarded. Instead, such items shall be stored separately, and opportunities shall be preferably provided to return those items to their respectful owners or other individuals.”

However, individual local governments were left to handle specific operations following the procedures stipulated in the guidelines. This led to gaps in the organizations in charge; the scale and period of handling; the handling methods; budgetary measures; and cooperation with other organizations. The quality and sustainability of the returning activities of a huge amount of photos found in disaster-affected areas depended heavily on what specific local government organization was in charge of the operations. Specific actions vary with the extent of the damage, but it is desirable to formulate integrated, responsible organizations in advance.

■Cooperation with various organizations

It is becoming increasingly important for local governments to cooperate with NGOs and NPOs with organizational abilities, companies (committed to CSR activities) and many other organizations to cope with wide-ranging large-scale disasters. In recent years, Japanese individuals have become particularly active in volunteer activities and have played a significant role in contributing to reconstruction activities.
Controlling a huge workforce and systematic project management are important in handling a large number of disaster-affected photos. There are limitations on administrative units’ abilities to take responsibility for those operations alone in addition to the huge amount of other serious duties.
The Japanese Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act stipulates that national and local governments should cooperate with volunteers. We think it is desirable for administrative units to examine in advance the cooperation expected and the scope of the commission and responsibilities, so that administrative units can act as the hub of cooperation with other organizations, including NGOs and NPOs.

■Digitization of photos in high-quality

Washing and cleaning photos damaged by a disaster is necessary. We strongly recommend that “high-quality digitization (scanning) of photos be done immediately” for the following reasons.

  • Even if photos are washed and cleaned, the images will inevitably deteriorate over time.
  • Digital image data can be viewed using various types of information devices.
  • Photos can be maintained in a way they can be reprinted and easily shared.
  • Even if images are partially damaged, digital images can be restored when necessary.
  • The searchability of photos improves rapidly.
  • The image data of group photos can be returned to many people.

“The high-quality digitization” of photos means that digitized image data can be used not only as index to search photos but also as a new “original source.” In terms of image quality, we recommend a resolution of more than 300dpi for full-color scanning.
To digitize photos, we think it is effective to use a digital copiers for the following reasons.

  • Full-color image scanners with ultra-high speed functionality are available, which enables high productivity.
  • By using pressure plates, even photos which have been partly torn or curled can be scanned without distortion.
  • System collaborations with PCs and cloud services are easy.
    *For the Save the Memory Project, we introduced a printing function with ID numbers for photos when the photos were scanned.
  • Digital copiers can be obtained with relative ease.

Although we did not try in this project, the high-quality digitization of photos using document cameras or digital cameras is also a conceivable option.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, we were not able to save many built-in storage devices of damaged PCs or external storage media such as damaged CD-Rs. We also think that those items were not regarded as high-priority objects to be collected.
Regarding how to approach these issues, we expect that further discussions will be carried out and developed in the future. It remains to be seen how much information can be confirmed if you find a computer whose owner appears difficult to identify from the appearance, and there are also technical issues (means and costs) for saving data from seriously damaged storage devices and media.

■Searching and returning photos

These are our recommendations based on photo digitization for returning a huge number of disaster-affected photos to their owners.
You can refer to what was described in Chapter 2 for the building of photo searching and returning systems and specific examples. In this context, we will focus on privacy considerations and security measures.

Individually owned photos, both digital and analog, are very personal, which sometimes is incompatible with the idea to look for owners through total publicity. Because we put greater emphasis on the mission of returning as many photos as possible than on privacy considerations in the face of the large-scale disaster, we basically enabled access to all the photos for all local residents, forming a consensus with the local governments of affected areas and disaster survivors.
What is significant in this context is that the entity carrying out photo return activities (administrative units or core management organizations) clarified the privacy security policies. More specifically, we think that, to return as many photos as possible, it is essential to confirm that there is basically no other choice but to make sure those disaster survivors can check all the photos. And it is desirable to show the specific means through which we are sincerely maintaining the photos so only those actually looking for lost photos can view them.
For specific examples of our activities for local governments, we set up an integrated photo center through which people could search photos by computer or look through the photos themselves. (We held some special “mobile” events to publicize photos to increase the rate of return.) In addition, we kept an accurate record of the dates of photo searches by specific individuals on the basis of identification cards, such as driver’s license. Using this method, we developed a system for recording each photo returned to its owners.

There may be a case that victims evacuated to distant places from large-scale disaster-affected areas would wish to search their photos from their evacuation sites. In such case, if a searching system is built to get access to relevant information using a web browser to search images stored on the cloud, like the Save the Memory Project, it is easy to search photos from sites far away from disaster-affected areas. But in this case, it is particularly important to protect privacy and security. To begin with, identification must be performed using technically appropriate means. More specifically, of course, you should avoid creating a situation in which a large number of unspecified people can get access to photo data. In addition, you should prevent people who are not disaster survivors, even if it’s not a large number of unspecified people, from easily searching or getting photos. To respond to the demand from such people in remote locations, it is necessary to build a secure identification system given the fact that they have difficulty conducting face-to-face communications. For example, if you can put in place a system combining information included on a certificate of residence with biometrics authentication (an identification method using body parts, including fingerprints and irises), you can setup an accurate and secure identification model for people in remote places.

JPEG, the most common image format, which we used, is available for most information devices as standard and is a very convenient format. It provides great benefits of easy to view on many different information devices and enables easy sharing of photo image data with family, relatives, and friends.
On the other hand, as is often the case with digital formats, there is also the risk of non- deteriorated, complete-duplicate data being leaked on purpose or accidentally. It is technically difficult to keep track of duplications and stopping leaks.
It is difficult to resolve these problems in a short time because it involves many technical requirements. It is desirable that we see spread of security technology appropriate for handling images and other personal data. But for the moment it will be necessary to sufficiently publicize this risk and raise awareness of appropriate data handling.

(2) Handling photos daily

The following is reference information for individuals to prepare just in case.

  • ●Be sure to make a backup of digital image data on digital cameras and smartphones.

    For example, you should not only store such data in a built-in storage device on computer but also make a backup of the data on an external storage media.

  • ●Precision computers and memory media are susceptible to physical damage. That is why it is important to think about using a cloud storage service to store image data.

    *There have been image data leaks from cloud storage services and you need to be careful about security.

  • ●For analog photos (silver halide photos), it is better to digitize them using image scanners. Some film scanners can continuously scan negative films. There is also a service available for digitizing photos and video tapes for personal use.

You can store and protect precious image data, or the records of your life, by combining the three methods mentioned above, but at present it is difficult to identify an adequately safe, easy and convenient method.
We strongly expect future IT developments to enable everyone to get safe and flexible access to various types of digital data from any information device, like a safe-deposit box for personal use, someday.

Lastly, we would like to conclude this chapter by reminding that photos and various types of digital data created in our everyday lives are not just fragments of information but are “parts of our lives” that are irreplaceable.