Monday, January 15, 2007

Each year brings new advances in mobile phone technology which enables our mobile phones with new features and introduces new services related to it. Modern mobile phones allow us to take photos or videos and instantly share it with other users via MMS/e-mail. We also have 3G video call, mobile games, Internet browsing from mobile phone, mobile banking, location based services and so many new use of mobile phone technology that it would take at least one full page to list it all. Simply incredible, but in my personal one advance is the most important, that is mobile phone based emergency alert/information systems. Such systems allow distribution of an important message to all mobile subscribers or thanks to the cell broadcast technology only subscribers located within a specific area.

The deadly 2004 tsunami and recent floods in Sumatra has showed how important it is to alert public about natural disaster threats. Considering the fact that mobile phone is a device which we keep close to us at almost all time, it has become a perfect tool for all sort of alert systems and provides method of quick alert distribution to the public. Overall this technology has such a huge potential, that it is very quickly adopted in many countries. During the 2004 tsunami, "Dialog" a GSM operator in Sri Lanka was already able to provide ongoing emergency information to its subscribers, to warn of incoming waves, to give news updates, to direct people to supply and distribution centres, and even to arrange donation collections. Benefiting on a wide coverage of GSM networks, even in Indonesia a tsunami alert could be transmitted to our mobile phones on a very remote beach far from nearest village – I was amazed with ability to us GPRS on a small Siau island, 8 hours by ferry from Manado. In Japan, cellular phone companies provide immediate notification of earthquakes and other natural disasters to their customers and in the event of an emergency, disaster response crews can locate trapped or injured people using the signals from their mobile phones. In New Zealand employees of an electricity distribution company receive alerts about fire threats to power lines via SMS. Dutch government uses cell broadcast to alert public about floods. IT administrators worldwide - also in Indonesia - are using SMS to alert them about problems with their systems, hacking attempts, virus attacks etc. helping them to quickly know about the problem and immediately take actions.

The mobile phone alert system is certainly not a flawless solution as several times a fake SMS with rumours caused panic among public i.e. in Sumatra or southern Chile where thousands of panicking people had fled their home after false rumours of tsunami which were sent via SMS. However, these problems can be overcome by establishing systems which provide credible source of alert messages. The mobile alert technology is also being improved year by year and new advances such as Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), provides better methods of message distribution between various systems.

It is definitely important to implement such beneficial technology in Indonesia and help public to act quicker in emergency situations. Development of such systems is more matter of a public awareness and operators/government commitment rather than financial issues as it is based on existing communication systems and does not require major investment. Certainly not everyone have mobile phone in Indonesia, but the number of users and network of coverage is getting better year by year, thus such system can only get more beneficial. The very positive sign is that we already see some progress done here in development of mobile phone based systems. On 5th January, 2007 SMS based flood warning system was activated for Jakarta and can inform district heads about risk of floods up to six hours before the flood. However, it is important to notice that the capabilities of mobile based alert systems also allow alert about fires, disease outbreaks and number of other threats and message can be sent to all the public with mobile phones in the area, not only to district heads. Let's hope the government and local operators will see the potential benefits and actively continue implementation of such systems.

Note: This text is an English version of my article which was published in Tabloid Pulsa.

Information about SMS based Indonesian Earthquake Information System can be found here.

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