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Japan Disaster Shifts Focus At SXSW Interactive

People watch live coverage of the disaster in Japan at the CNN SXSW Grill in downtown Austin.
Photo by Nathan Bernier for KUT News
People watch live coverage of the disaster in Japan at the CNN SXSW Grill in downtown Austin.

The Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant emergency have derailed plans for many South by Southwest attendees who work for non-profit fundraising organizations. Even those outside that community have been riveted by the scale of the calamity.

"I was expecting to go to some sessions, network with some people, and go to some parties," said Rob Wu, a founder of the fundraising website CauseVox. "So far, I've attended zero sessions. I haven't been networking, and I attended half a party yesterday."

Wu has been busy launching a campaign challenging SXSW attendees to donate to the American Red Cross. Since Friday afternoon, he helped to raise $8,000. He's prmoted the cause on Twitter under the hashtags #sxsw4japan and #sxswcares.  Wu set an initial goal to raise $10,000 by the end of SXSW Interactive, and has since increased the goal to $20,000. 

In an unintended twist, the disaster in Japan provides a chance for non-profit fundraisers to highlight their importance during SXSW Interactive, although the people involved don't like to think of it that way.

"It's too hard to think of it as an opportunity when you think of the tragedy that is happening on the ground,"'s development chief Andrew Urban said.'s community engagement manager, Debra Askanase, said they had originally planned to raise money for an Austin non-profit, but those plans changed.

"As soon as the disaster happened in Japan, we quickly put up a big banner on our home page. We vetted six or seven non-profit organizations that we know are working to help relieve some of the trouble, and we are directing people to our home page and the American Red Cross," she said.

"I spent most of yesterday Tweeting, talking to bloggers, talking to folks who could get the word out about raising money," she said.

Askanase says they rasied $7,000 in about 18 hours.

The online event registration site EventBrite organized a last minute SXSW party on Sunday night to raise money for Japan disaster relief.  

Even those outside the non-profit community with no relations to anyone in Japan have been captivated by the stream of news emanating from stricken Japanese communities.

AOL executive Jason Shellen was watching live coverage on CNN outside the cable news network's temporary venue near the convention center.

"I think the words 'nuclear disaster' were the ones that made me take a look," he said. "I've been watching in my hotel room a little bit, and it's concerning. The gravity of the situation seems to be growing by the day."

You can donate to Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief at the American Red Cross.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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