Mobile phones as tiny lifesavers

The Asia-Pacific region is no stranger to large-scale disasters, and the recent past has been no exception. The 2003 SARS epidemic, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and the 2009 Sumatra earthquake have taken their place in a long history of natural violence. For this reason, the Asia-Pacific region has looked at ways of minimizing the impact of these disasters, comprising two major components: early detection, and the fast and effective dissemination of information about it to the public. This article focuses on approaches to the latter.

The most enduring approach to issuing public warnings has been the alarm. Traditionally, the first thing that the public knew about a disaster was when a siren sounded. This was an effective way of alerting a large group of people in a specific area that a disaster was imminent, but that was the extent of its usefulness. A siren is a dumb system - it tells people there is danger, but not what the danger is (fire, tsunami, chemical leak etc.), nor what the appropriate course of action is.

Recently, governments across Asia have been looking at ways in which they can improve public safety warnings. This current wave of interest was sparked off by the Boxing Day Tsunami, where it became clear that many lives could have been saved if the appropriate warning systems had been in place.

A few years ago, Japan took a global lead by implementing its Earthquake Early Warning system, which broadcasts warnings to the public over both radio and television when an earthquake is expected. This allows people who have seen or heard the broadcast to take appropriate action. The key here is that they are made aware of the exact nature of the threat and so can react appropriately.

Such systems, however, are not without their faults. TV and radio will only alert people who are actively listening to a broadcast - during working hours that is a very small proportion of the total public. Even if combined with a siren the system is flawed. When hearing a siren the natural response is to evacuate whichever building you are in, or if you are outside, to stay outside. It would be counterintuitive (and potentially dangerous depending on the nature of the disaster) to go inside to watch a TV broadcast.

What is needed is a system that can immediately tell all people within a given geography, regardless of where they are or what they are doing, that a disaster is imminent, what the nature of the disaster is, and what the appropriate course of action should be.

SMS limitations

The most useful channel for relaying such information is the mobile phone. Even in developing countries, mobile phones are the most ubiquitous communications channel and subscription levels continue to grow exponentially. In addition, as mobile phones can support text messages, they have the ability to convey the level of detail needed during public warning alerts. SMS text messaging is the most widely used messaging system at present, but it is limited as a medium for public warning.

SMS is a point-to-point technology, meaning that an individual message needs to be sent to each device. This slows down or stops the process of sending messages to a required audience, and speed is essential for reducing casualties during an emergency. Moreover, as messages are sent to many people in the same location, the network can get congested by the volume of SMS messages being sent, effectively blocking any communication. Finally, SMS messages are only sent once, meaning that they cannot send appropriate guidance as people migrate into another area.

There are also privacy concerns involved with SMS as the technology relies on users registering their phone numbers with the authorities. The only way a government would be able to send text messages to all users within a specific location would be to track their movements. Besides the enormous technical challenges and related infrastructure investments required to make SMS location specific, this is obviously far too 'Big Brother' to work in practice.

The Japanese system has already been extended to mobile as the Earthquake Tsunami Warning System (ETWS) using a much more appropriate technology: Cell Broadcast.

Dedicated channel

To the end user, Cell Broadcast resembles SMS very closely, but in terms of implementation it is far more practical.

The technology allows one message to be sent to many hundreds of thousands of devices, instantly. These messages are sent to all phones within reach of specific mobile telephone masts, making it a truly location-specific solution and one without the need to register or track devices, and so without privacy concerns. As an early warning alert comes in for a tsunami or earthquake in a specific geographic location therefore, operatives can send a message to everyone within that area instantly, whether locals or visitors, giving them the appropriate level of information to take action immediately.

In the aftermath of a disaster, Cell Broadcast can continue to offer governments and public safety agencies a useful communications channel. As the Haiti earthquake showed, telephone networks often survive earthquakes, but due to the huge amounts of traffic going over the voice and data channels they often fall over and cannot support voice and text messages. Cell Broadcast, however, has its own dedicated broadcast channel and would continue to function, allowing relief agencies to convey essential information to the public such as where food and medical relief can be found and whether they need to take shelter in advance of aftershocks.

Cell Broadcast is already garnering much interest from governments across the world, including Europe (EU-Alert) and the US (CMAS) as well as Japan. In Europe, where trials have already been successfully completed, the results have been hugely positive. The Dutch Ministry of the Interior is currently rolling out a public warning system based on Cell Broadcast technology following a very successful trial in Zeeland. The results of the trial were impressive, showing that the messages got through to between 72% and 88% of users across the course of the assessment. Between 80% and 94% of trial users said that Cell Broadcast was a useful addition to the use of sirens for public warning (the remaining users had their phones switched off when the messages came through).

Governments across Asia could benefit from experience gained by the developments in Japan, Europe and the United States. The requirement for advanced public warning systems is indisputably present in the Asia-Pacific region and the region would benefit greatly from the features enabled by Cell Broadcast. It is an elegant and cost effective method of alerting the public in the event of any disaster. Moreover, following a catastrophe, it provides a useful channel for providing the public with vital information with regards to health and wellbeing. It serves both as an early warning and also as a tool for coordinating and maximizing the effectiveness of relief efforts.

Maarten Mes is managing director of one2many