Why Australia could fail in the event of a large Tsunami and how social media could prevent disaster.

We’re over 2 years since the terrible Tsunami of Dec 26 2006. At the time, most countries around the world had failed to put adequate measures in place capable of warning citizens in low lying areas. Since then a lot of work has been done. Australia has a monitoring system (of sorts), however it is seriously flawed in my opinion.

Why? Quite simply, by not embracing existing technology and modern consumer behaviour, tens of thousands of lives (maybe more) are at risk if a large scale tsunami or mega-tsunami were to hit our shores – especially at night. Historical events indicate Australia has experienced them in the past and experts don’t doubt there will be more (here).

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Australia is surrounded by plate tectonics that are capable of generating a large tsunami.

The biggest threat is that there is only a 2-4 hour window from first warning until a tsunami hits Australian shores. A night-time tsunami could be devastating.

 

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Australia has 1000’s of beachfront dwellings, metres from the ocean.

Here’s the problem with the AU system: The method of warning people of an approaching tsunami is outlined on the Bureau of Metorology website (here) – in fact it states:

Need Emergency Advice? Please listen to your local radio and TV announcements or call 1300 TSUNAMI (1300 878 6264) for latest warning information. For emergency assistance, call your local emergency authority on 132 500

 

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Which raises a vital question: Exactly how is this system supposed to work if a tsunami hits Aussie shores at 4am when we’re all sleeping? Are we supposed to be tuned into our TV’s or listening to the radio at 4am? Is the siren going to sound and wake us? Nope. In fact there is a process shown on the BOM site, but it doesn’t explain how anyone will actually be alerted if we are all sleeping.

The diagram below shows the official process that will be initiated in the event of a Tsunami, but I would argue that with such short warning times (2-4 hours) any such system should be connected direct to publicly accessible data feeds.

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The solution:
Our world has changed. We no longer rely on traditional media channels to broadcast information on a one to many ratio. The reality is that we are hyperconnected through the Internet, social media networks, broadband mobile networks. We are almost permanently wired. Twitter has shown to be a proven method of breaking news faster than anything else we have ever experienced allowing ‘people’ to be the carrier of a message, rather than a media channel like TV or Radio. In essence we have a global system made of networked people that could be alerted at high speed in the next emergency. A basic RSS feed direct from the tsunami system would allow applications to be built and installed on Phones, iPhones, computers, custom wifi or internet based products all of which are capable of alerting citizens quickly. Individuals receiving such an alert would be more likely by virtue of the technology, more highly connected than average and potentially capable of  transmitting the message far and wide through new digital channels, and in numbers this would likely be quicker then any government body or emergency at alerting mass numbers.

The Result:
Devices most consumers already own (phones, ipods, Laptops) will be capable of generating warnings with the right software installed, (even at 4am via alarm based apps), providing high risk-low lying coastal areas more warning time than they have currently.

What needs to be done immediately:
1. BOM site to install an RSS feed direct from the tsunami warning system. (Public could develop its own apps using this feed).*
2. Official warning apps made available across all digital devices capable of receiving the feed, made accessible from BOM site.

* I estimate that in terms of cost to produce (1) this would be little more than a couple of days work in development time for an experienced team.

I’ll be sending this blog post to Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull – via Twitter of course. Note: I’d send it to Senator Conroy (Minister for broadband / Internet), but he’s unfortunately still MIA when it comes to social media technology.

Update: 14/3/2011
Following the devastating Japan Tsunami on 11/3/11 I have reviewed this article. Most of what I have said still stands and the threat of a nighttime Tsunami is very real to Australian shores. There has been a little progress, but not enough:

The AU govt has introduced a new system http://www.emergencyalert.gov.au/ but unfortunately there are a many issues in relation to a major tsunami threat. As it says on the site “It was not technically possible to incorporate a location based capability”. Bottom line it is still a push alert system and will leave many at risk until users are able to ‘opt in’ to alerts.

However there is a private company that offers free AU Tsunami warnings via SMS etc here: http://www1.ewn.com.au/ – until the government gets its act together it’s probably the best option to get an alert to your phone in the middle of the night.

Regards – @eunmac

The spread of the Japan Tsunami 11/3/11

 

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No Responses

  1. Will says:

    Very good idea, the RSS feed. What they should really do is provide an API for live-streaming in the case of an emergency, maybe link it to geo-location data on people’s mobile phones and send out massive text messages. Surely if Telstra/Vodaphone/everyone else can send me spam text messages, BOM can do the same.

    Also, Stephen Conroy is SO down with the ‘social media technology’, he’s the best micro-blogging, tech-meme-ing, clean-feeding politician out there! http://twitter.com/stephenconroy

  2. Sushant Verma says:

    I still dont see how a rss feed will wake me at 4am.

    The only thing i see is a smoke alarm like system installed in all homes which will wake residents so that they can assess the situation… through friends/neighbours/ABC/SBS.

    Prahaps this could be done through the landline phone network?.. im sure optus and telstra can send people out to install the systems?… could generate some jobs for ‘this recession’ :)

    This system will work with people who dont use computers(i know this applies to my mum… she relies on tv for information). Im sure tat the tv networks will be more then happy to send out emergency broadcasts when it happens.

  3. Nathan Bush says:

    Nice idea. I think it has to be tied to the phones either through an app that triggers an alarm (the app wouldn’t have to be just for tsunami’s – it could also be tied to bushfire warnings, cyclones, floods etc).

  4. eunmac says:

    @Sushant thanks for the comment. An RSS feed is in my opinion the easiest way for most developers and public to access the data more freely. A developer could easily write an app which will pull the feed at say 15m intervals and trigger an alarm within an app if necessary. – Just my 2 cents!

  5. eunmac says:

    @Nathan – good point. There are many more opportunities for the government to tap into this technology.

  6. eunmac says:

    @will – Yes I’m sure Fake Stephen Conroy on Twitter will get the job done 😉

  7. Maybe works, maybe don’t but I hope it never has the need to use.

  8. Shane says:

    I believe that the State and Federal governments (public servant level, not politician level) are working on a way of accessing the Integrated Public Number Database (unless you have a silent number your landline is on this database) to automate telephone calls in case of an emergency such as this.

    A big hurdle here is privacy information who under legislation can actually have access to the data in the IPND.

    Governments are thinking about this. It’s just than, as with most things, when governments and legislation are involved, things take time. At least they’re thinking about it.

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    They all look different… Does anyone has other suggestions?
    As well did somebody hear of that software:
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