SMS news alerts during emergencies – The experience of JNW and the tsunami warning of 13th September 2007

Chamath Ariyadasa

The coverage by the media of yesterday’s earthquake near Indonesia might be of interest to some readers, and as the editor of JNW, Sri Lanka’s first SMS news agency, I thought of penning my personal opinion and raising some issues that could be discussed further.

My biggest concern at the moment, as a journalist, is getting access to the initial tip off from authorities on an impending disaster and the subsequent official news messages in a timely manner so that they can be passed on to the public as fast as possible.

There isn’t an email or SMS alert system in place, that I know of, that could easily meet this need. I know of the Met Dept website (http://www.meteo.slt.lk/Tswarn.html) which goes some way towards improving access to information, but I wouldn’t know when its updated.

An SMS or email by the Met Dept or Disaster Management Centre would go a long way towards helping the media pass on the message faster and more efficiently to the public saving valuable minutes in news delivery.

Yesterday, telephone access to the Met Dept and Disaster Mgt Centre was available and officials were available to tell us what was going, though it wasn’t always easy to phone in to these centres.

On the actual coverage by JNW via SMS, we thought it went pretty smoothly and SMS news delivery, which is a new and evolving format for breaking news, seems to be a very effective means of news delivery at the initial stages of a disaster warning.

I didn’t notice SMS congestion on any network during the first 2 hours. Though there was SMS congestion on one network in Colombo after those first 2 hours, but it cleared in under an hour.

In my opinion SMS news alerts are one of a number of methods of disseminating breaking news and one of several methods that authorities can use to inform the public. If not to reach 100,000 SMS subscribers, then at least 30,000 subscribers.

This number can include all media institutions reporters and local government officials, relief officials etc who want to be on the list (looking at delivery times of under 5-10 minutes).

From what I have gathered about SMS delivery, operators can increase capacity to deliver messages faster and to more people if they invest more, but current capacity/delivery times may be what I mentioned above.

SMS has now become one layer of disaster news dissemination which gets built on very quickly by TV, radio and web media leading to millions of people being made aware in minutes.

I am pretty sure that SMS alerts make news dissemination by TV, Radio and the web so much more faster, effective and efficient increasing reaction times of people involved in the process.

(Feedback from readers who received SMS news would be most welcome)

If breaking news by SMS came from the Met Dept or the Disaster Management Centre itself everyone’s reaction times would be so much more faster, which is what someone needs to seriously look at.

I heard that at least one radio station was talking about no threat after the Disaster Management Centre had warned the public on the coast to evacuate to safe areas, so it wasn’t a smooth coverage by any means.

I will be interested to know if Dialog experienced news delivery delays yesterday for their Reuters alerts but we delivered fine for our list of subscribers on all the networks.

  • http://www.lirneasia.net Rohan Samarajiva

    SMS has a place in community-centered models as well as in communicating to first responders and to media BEFORE the public warning is issued. Ideally multiple modes including, but not limited to SMS will be used: More detail is provided in the following excerpt from an internal document of the Last Mile HazInfo project:

    Communicating messages to first responders and media
    It appears, from anecdotal evidence, that the tsunami hazard information center (Met Department) received large numbers of phone calls from the media when word got around that a potentially tsunamigenic earthquake had occurred on the Indian Ocean side of Indonesia. In many cases, senior officers who should have been communicating the scientific evidence to key decision makers at the DMC and the Ministry were being called directly.

    This practice is problematic for two reasons:
    1. It eats up the time that should be used for considered decision making on whether or not to issue national-level watch/warning/evacuation messages. Time spent on the phone is time not spent on analyzing or communicating the evidence to the relevant authorities;
    2. The unstructured format of a journalist-initiated phone call can lead to misunderstanding. For example, some journalists may not know the difference between an alert and a warning. This format also does not leave a record in case there is a need to review it at a later time.

    Expressing concern about talking to journalists in the aftermath of a tsunamigenic earthquake does not equate to a recommendation that no one should talk to the media. What is required are:
    1. A reliable and fast method of communication (e-mail, fax, telex, or even a taped telephone voice message) with journalists in all three official languages. Messages should be sent to designated numbers and e-mail addresses, preferably using automated procedures.
    2. Journalists who call the designated number (preferably in a hunting configuration that can handle multiple simultaneous calls) should be able to hear a taped message.
    3. If journalists require additional information they should be able to call a designated spokesperson, whose sole responsibility is to talk to the media. All conversations should be taped.

    The point is to give more information faster and in better formats. Shifting away from the current unstructured modes to a structured mode will allow this to be done. Involving journalists in the process of restructuring the communication system of the Met Department will help improve it and will also serve to educate journalists about it.

    Multiple media such as fixed and mobile phones, SMS, fax and the Internet should be used. Redundancy improves reliability. Using CAP enabled media will help streamline the process and expedite the messages. Where character limitations exist, as in SMS, the short message can be used to direct the recipient to the place where the complete message can be obtained.

    However, we would caution against reliance on SMS for public warning. because, like all point-to-point media, it is subject to congestion. There is a much better alternative that is now under consideration by a technical committee appointed by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights: cell broadcasting. Because this is not a point-to-point medium, it is not subject to congestion.

    THe pros and cons of SMS and cell broadcasting were discussed in detail at http://www.lirneasia.net/2005/01/sms-as-part-of-early-warning-system/

  • Chamath

    Thanks Professor as always for your comments and constructive input. The person who wrote that last mile stuff is not emphasising enough and not appreciating the role of media enough though, in my opinion.

    Managing information flow to a few thousand government officials, police, relief officials, local government officials on the coast is entirely the role of the government authorities. Agreed.

    Managing information flow to 12 million adults in Sri Lanka is entirely in the hands of the media.

    I am in particular referring to a crisis situation when time is of the essence and everything needs to be communicated in under 30 minutes, or ideally 5 minutes.

    12 million is a lot of people.

    The media is always going to be reporting any disaster warnings in parallel whether an alternative technology manages to reach a large number of people and whether we like it or not.

    So it should be the number 1 priority right now that the media is bought into the loop as first responders in the most effective manner possible to prevent any divergent reporting that can confuse the public, and the capacity should be put in place so that reporters aren’t forced to seek officials outside of official spokespeople to get a reliable comment.

    I also maintain media is the most important way news is disseminated quickly to the public.

  • http://www.lirneasia.net Rohan Samarajiva

    No debate.

    The government must devise an efficient way of communicating watch/warning/evacuation message to its first responders (this is a number that is in the 100s not thousands) and the media. Assuming this is done fast enough, SMS can be used (it will be ahead of the wave of congestion that will be caused by the population learning about the hazard). However, our trials showed that SMS is not at present capable of handling CAP and the number of characters needed for a comprehensive message.

    Media, including telcos, must deliver public warning. This should be done using point-to-multipoint modes such as radio broadcasting and cell broadcasting. Point-to-point networks are inherently vulnerable to congestion. No harm in using SMS, but it should be in addition to the reliable modes not as the main mode.

    Highest priority is not getting technology decided but getting internal government processes streamlined so that (a) a decision is made quickly; (b) only one message is given out; and (c) the natural tendency to CYA by overuse of warnings and evacuation orders will be controlled. Unless these problems are quickly solved, the right decisions on technology will be futile.

  • http://www.lirneasia.net Rohan Samarajiva

    Please see how the Thai NDMC used SMS (and did not panic the people): http://www.lirneasia.net/2007/09/tsunami-alert-wasnt-needed-says-ndwc/

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  • Chamath

    Many thanks Professor. My following comment is more for general readers and maybe government officials who might read this thread.

    The Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) seems to be an XML based format to keep watch/warning/evacuation messages consistent and it seems to be a web friendly format.

    So it doesn’t look like much work needs to be done here.

    Watch/warning messages are already being typed up on a computer by the Met Dept (http://www.meteo.slt.lk/Tswarn.html) judging by this link and now its a matter of taking it out as fast as possible to a predefined database such as the media.

    The benefits of this include a fewer number of calls to the call centre bombarding officials seeking detail that is already on a website, journalists not wasting time getting the news, and journalists not relying on secondary unreliable sources.

    The message needs to be fed once to the XML web feed and it will be available to all disaster warning technologies needing the XML input message. (I am thinking a configured automatic email will not be a problem here). Its as simple as cutting and pasting the message on to a web page text box.

    The next step is to send an SMS to first responders (my interest is in media getting this – anywhere between 500 to 5,000 people)

    If there are concerns about summarizing a message in under 160 characters, and to have someone do that reliably 24/7, an SMS could be sent simply saying the following:

    “New Message Posted By The Disaster Management Centre at http://www.abcd.lk/xyz.html

    There is nothing to change in that message, it will be the same every time (a time stamp could be added to the SMS as well, if needed)

    Sending out an SMS is very easy. There are plenty of password-protected internet-based applications that telecom operators can provide with the number database stored by the telecom operator.

    Its simply a matter of opening a web page, entering username/password, pasting the message and pressing SEND.

    In fact, an even easier method is available.

    An SMS from a predefined mobile number with some predefined protection coding sent to a particular number will be sent to the relevant database. The SMS text will look something like this

    :: New Message Posted By The Disaster Management Centre at http://www.abcd.lk/xyz.html ::

    So the official in charge of alerting media simply has to put the watch/warning/evacuation message on a website and send the above SMS to a predefined number from his or her phone (only) and up to 5,000 people are alerted to a new message in matter of minutes. (Under 1,000 can be done very comfortably and very quickly) This person can also be on the list so he or she gets the same message and knows it was delivered immediately.

    The benefits of all media institutions receiving this SMS, which can be extended to local government officials (as a second line of communication to the main technology), are enormous as valuable minutes are saved in news dissemination. They will all be able to log on and read a reliable DETAILED watch/warning/evacuation message on a website.

    Journalists who will be caught in the middle of their daily lives chatting in their offices, driving their vehicles etc etc, will immediately get an SMS saying “new message posted.” If they don’t log on immediately (using mobile web browsing) they can ask a colleague to do it for them.

    News stations will immediately start reading out a reliable, detailed, well-sourced report via TV and Radio while SMS news services and web media will start pushing out well-sourced news.

    JNW being an accredited news agency with the Government Information Department with experience in SMS news delivery since early 2006, and the use of SMS applications, will be happy to volunteer to help set this up.

    JNW currently reaches the public via SMS mainly with its tie up with majority state-owned Mobitel.

    The above is my outsider view on how an SMS alert for the media could be set up.

  • http://www.lirneasia.net Rohan Samarajiva

    Very practical and constructive suggestion. The website has to be designed to handle the spike in traffic this will generate, but that is easy. If we get an opportunity, we will communicate this to the DMC.

  • Chamath

    Thanks Professor.
    For the general reader, there was a typo above. The SMS with the coding can be typed something like this

    :>;: New Message Posted By The Disaster Management Centre at http://www.abcd.lk/xyz.html :>;;:

    An ICT4 Peace blog review on SMS is here http://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2007/09/13/sms-alerts-during-emergencies-lessons-from-sri-lankas-tsuanmi-alert-on-13-september-2007/

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  • Klaus

    has anybody looked into http://www.sms-tsunami-warning.com? it looks like a reliable web based Tsunami alert system that works worldwide