NYT: SMS as warning system for future disasters

Another really solid piece from New York Times reporter John Schwartz about technology's role in the tsunami disaster. Here, questions about a text-message emergency warning system, and an interview with "Sanjaya," aka "Morquendi," whose SMSes from Sri Lanka were linked and excerpted here on BoingBoing earlier this week (Link):
When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, Sanjaya Senanayake found he could not make calls on his cellphone or regular land line at first - but he could send and receive text messages from his cellphone. Mr. Senanayake, a 23-year-old television producer, has spent the last few days reporting on the disaster, frantically searching for friends and posting his experiences to the networked world through a [redacted] (desimediabitch.blogspot.com) - often via text messages relayed by a friend in Mumbai, India, formerly known as Bombay. "It's a very easy, instant way to get the message across," he said in a cellphone interview.

Experts say that thousands of deaths might have been avoided if warning systems had been in place to alert the people around the rim of the Indian Ocean of the tsunami. No such system exists there now, although the United States has such a system in place for countries of the Pacific basin. Those who design and use the wireless technology known as Short Message Service, currently used for chatter and advertisements, say it could be used to jumpstart governments' warning networks.

"This tragedy is going to put this more to the forefront," said Greg Wilfahrt, cofounder of SMS.ac, a company that sells text message services in more than 170 countries. The technology, though used most avidly in the United States by teenagers, is wildly popular worldwide and has accompanied the international boom in cellphone use. Even in parts of the developing world, cellphones are everywhere: almost half of the Malaysian population uses them, according to a survey released this month.

"The way they use the cellphones over there, it makes us look like amateurs," said Steve O'Rourke, a director of the Asia Pacific Research Group, which has studied cellphone use. Cellphone use has not spread quite as widely in many of those nations as it has in the developed world, of course. But getting cellphones to people living in remote, impoverished areas has been a major focus of economic development efforts. Even a few phones might do the trick in the face of an impending disaster, Mr. Senanayake said. The message need only reach "one person in every locality who has a phone," he said, and that person can spread the word.

Link to NYT story.

BoingBoing reader Jacob Rome writes,

I read the post this morning about using SMS to help warn people of disasters. While this is a good idea, no one has talked about a much better technology for warning masses of people-- radio & TV broadcasting. The US has a system set up to do this, as I'm sure we're all aware from the tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. The geologists in US & Japan who recognized the threat of a tsunami could have called international broadcast media such as CNN & the BBC. In turn, by broadcasting news of the possible tsunami in the Indian Ocean, they would alert national authorities, local media & even some residents about the pending disaster. This was a tremendous missed oppurtunity, no formal system was needed to warn people and a little creativity could have send tens of thousands of lives.
One week after the disaster, we're seeing a number of reports and op-eds examining the failures that accompanied this event, and questions about how information could be shared more quickly in the future. It would seem that one lesson learned here is that multiple, overlapping alert systems offer the best reach. How tragic that in this era of abundant and unprecedented global connectivity, such critical information did not reach those who needed it most. We can do better.

Update: BoingBoing reader Gene Cowan says,

Arlington County, Virginia -- home of the Pentagon -- has been using an SMS alert system for a couple of years now. It was very helpful a week ago when a gas tanker overturned on the highway near my house -- just beside the Pentagon. Most of us woke up thinking it was another terrorist attack, but within minutes the SMS system send a message to my phone with the news of the truck crash, then a second message telling us to stay indoors because of possible fuel spills. Very helpful and reassuring.