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The Future of Tsunami Warning Systems And Disaster Relief
Taran Rampersad, 3 Jan 05

Wave of Change: How to Build a Global Internet Tsunami Warning System in a Month by Robert X. Cringley was forwarded by Alex, and it's worth a read. Cringley makes some good points - points, in 2004, I have seen first hand:

Here's the problem with big multi-government warning systems. First, we have a disaster. Then, we have a conference on the disaster, then plans are proposed, money is appropriated, and three to five years later, a test system is ready. It isn't the final system, of course, but it still involves vast sensor arrays both above and below the surface of the ocean, satellite communication, and a big honking computer down in the bowels of the Department of Commerce or maybe at NASA. That's just the detection part. The warning part involves multilateral discussions with a dozen nations, a treaty, more satellite communication, several computer networks, several television and radio networks, and possibly a system of emergency transmitters. Ten years, a few million dollars and we're ready...

Doesn't that sound a bit familiar?

What Cringley is saying here is a truth which I and others have experienced in the wake of Hurricane Ivan - ideas came up and lay dormant in the bureaucracy , sleeping until the next emergency. There seems to be a definite lack of a sense of urgency in governmental institutions, and this criticism is not undue. Consider that the Alert Retrieval Cache (ARC) was built by volunteers last night, and is in beta already. The silent criticism of the governmental institutions is that this already exists and came into existence without a large budget and lots of meetings. The bottom line is that interested people did this, in a very Software Libre sort of way.

Within 2 hours of this weblog post, a beta system of ARC was born. Whether it survives is yet to be determined, but the speed with which it was developed tells us that the rate at which we evolve solutions has the capacity to be drastically increased around the world. Nevermind the South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog itself, which has stood the test of time and crisis.

Cringley outlines a lot of useful information in his article, and in the 2nd World Power there is the demonstrated ability to do exactly what Cringley suggests:

...You don't need an international consortium to build such a local tsunami warning system. You don't even need broadband. The data is available, processing power is abundant and cheap. With local effort, there is no reason why every populated beach on earth can't have a practical tsunami warning system up and running a month from now. That's Internet time for you, but in this case, its application can protect friends everywhere from senseless and easily avoidable death...

As Michelangelo once said, "Criticize by creating. " Maybe, in doing this, the governments of the world may change to become more representative of the people who are creating. And in doing that, maybe we can make the world a better place through taking control of our lives and our safety.

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It's an interesting argument, but I'd like to see it extended to address conflicts between people or groups of people. There, power imbalances between those that have it and those that don't (whether on the basis of money, class, gender privilege, race privilege, sexuality, etc.) play a big role in determining resource distribution and what problems get seen as problems to begin with. It's probably the root cause of why there was no warning system in the Indian Ocean despite that there were in wealthy parts of the world.

In other words, my suspicion is there are some social issues that are rooted in something elites don't want you to solve, which is concentrated power, whether in the state or in a private group like a corporation or a class of individuals. That's the history of the struggle for decent working conditions. That's the history of transportation and urban planning in the United States (there's a reason why most American cities don't have adequate public transportation systems and everyone drives and it goes back 100 years), etc.

Anyway, food for thought.

Posted by: Saurav on 3 Jan 05

Everything needed is already there for a basic Tsunami warning system, not foolproof or full coverage but helpful. Few people on Indian or Thai beaches especially tourist beaches are far from radios and TVs. News flashes interrupting regular programs would have spread a warning to millions. Beach shacks and hotels have TVs on all day and young international tourists, sad people, have TV on for breakfast. Look at Kovalum, South India, for example, hundreds of TVs are within 100 meters of the sea.

The fact the everyone cannot be warned is not a reason for warning no one. Clearly wild areas of Northern Sumatra and fishermen at sea are beyond my point. A young girl who had studied tsunamis at school and shouted at her neighbours when the sea went OUT saved a hundred or so because she recognised the bizarre initial contrary effect of water running the wrong way and guessed the cause.
A Sri Lankan hotelier who had had prior dreams of waves had simply told his staff and guests, if you see any strange waves simply drop everything and run away from the beach. All his staff and guests were saved.

Any phone call from any seizmic centre to any media head or senior government official of any one of the countries concerned could have initiated a series of news flashes that could have saved thousands. There was time in many cases for local police to cycle to the beaches and warn by mouth. The problem is that we do not have the mind set of instant action and decison taking, especially at government level.

A rudimentary system could be running in minutes, we do not need millions of dollars to do this. At worst once or twice every decade people will run up the beach for nothing much and waste a morning. Would that not have been better than what actually happened? Low land near epi-centres is always going to be impossible to protect, but for people in Africa to have died many hours after this disaster had destroyed coastal Sri Lanka was unforgivable. So lets have less talk about wave meters and syrens and just get the secure phone numbers of presidents and media bosses into the hands of the responsible scientists who run the networks of labs and tell em, next time, take a chance, but do it now. Robert Gore, Gainsborough UK

Posted by: Robert Gore on 6 Jan 05



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