SMS as part of Early Warning System

Posted on January 12, 2005  /  93 Comments

SMS enlisted for Tsunami warning system?

By Ben Charny, CNET
Monday, January 10 2005 11:55 AM

At least five countries have begun developing an alert system using cell phone text messages, a response to the catastrophic Asian tsunami that exposed flaws in present-day early warning schemes.

Discussions among officials in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, which were hard hit by the killer tsunami, along with France, have begun in just the last few days, according to a source familiar with the plans.

The goal is to supplement older systems that proved little help for nations in the path of the immense waves in late December that have so far killed more than 140,000 people in 11 countries. Already emerging from the wreckage are tales of emergency workers and stricken residents using SMS (short message service) to aid in rescue efforts or keep in touch with loved ones. Sri Lankan officials have already used text messages to distribute information on how to get aid.

“We hope to have something tangible in place by mid-April,” said Greg Wilfahrt, executive vice president and co-founder of SMS.AC, a wireless e-mail provider that has relationships with carriers in 170 nations. The company has offered its infrastructure and carrier connections to become the basis of the SMS warning system. SMS.AC is also coordinating the talks between the various nations.

Using SMS as an early warning system makes sense in theory, though it would be immensely difficult to carry out, according to analysts. Because cell phone owners typically carry their handsets with them, cell phones could be a much more suitable means of relaying information instantly to those in harm’s way. Existing warning systems funnel warnings through various intermediaries and rely on televisions or radios.

Yankee Group analyst John Jackson said the effort could have an enormous upside, given that most phones now are capable of sending and receiving text messages. However, coordination could be a big headache. “It could mitigate the capital expense of setting up sirens and other bits of early warning systems,” he said. “But one of the major problems could be who’s going to assure that message actually gets through?”,39037080,39212474,00.htm


  1. The combination of terrestrial digital broadcasting and cell phone technology is what the developers want to be used for sending evacuation orders and alarm information to people during large-scale disasters in Japan:

  2. I found this article very informative but maybe in this forum ancient history ….

    Performance Information Systems for Rural Emergency Response:
    Field Examination and Simulation of End-To-End Response Systems

  3. It may not be the most appropriate medium to reach citizens in Sri Lanka but it could function next to that.

    Cell Broadcasting works even in full overload, does not itself contribute to load, will not crash the networks, and can reach 95% of mobile phone users within about 20-30 seconds.

  4. Sylvia is giving us information and links at a rate none of us can practically follow, with our on-going work. But Sylvia, please be ensured that I will definitely have a look at what you send us as soon as I find some time. (Don’t know when!) Many thanks for your concerns and help.

  5. Dear Chanuka,

    :) Rest assured. I noticed Rohan took the possibilities into account in the draft. Since I don’t have a lot to do at the moment (ask Divakar) and have some experience in disaster management I’ll be happy to help out on anything I can do to make your work easier. Just let me know by email.

  6. May be worth looking at : for a different perspective on SMS use that places emphasis on authentication of messages, an aspect that has been neglected in some of our discussions.

  7. Microimage Sinhala/Tamil SMS new release will support receiving of Push SMS messages in Sinhala and Tamil. Basically a Message can be pushed to mobile phones to appear instantly upon receiving on their handset in Sinhala and Tamil, once this is released. When people start using this, any application service can push a warnning or important message to it. This product will support any Java enabled handset and will be available for Microsoft Mobile Winodws based smart phones as well. At present Dialog GSM has launched our earlier version of Sinhala/Tamil messaging product and new version will come out soon through them. Other operators such as Celltel etc, will launch it soon. Within past 3 weeks number of downloads for this app, is quite impressive and it will continue once the new product also comes to market through others.

    Microimage is more than happy to share and assist in any disaster related localized mobile SMS applications and related work.

    To ALL : I am happy to announce today Sri Lanka made history by finally launching the much awaited and debated Sinhala SLS 1134 Unicode Standard. It was attended by all the key stake holders and the number of applications demonstrated on Unicode was quite impressive and is a huge blow to all the critics. Microsoft Corp, did a presentation in Unicode in their famous Office suite, Linux did as well with loads of Sinhala Unicode Applications and showed inter-operability with others, Microimage (Us) demonstrated our SMS product and it’s interoperability with Unicode Sinhala Email which is an extreamly interesting and innovative application, and several other key institutes like University of Colombo, Science Land etc, demonstrated their products.

    I think industry will move forward on this platform with all above players promising to deliver content, Applications such as Voice to Text,OCR and many more in Sinhala. This is quite happy day for all stake holders where after long lapse ICT will be enabled in Sinhala.

  8. SLSI1134 is incomplete and your SMS is not compatible with other net works unless they buy into microimage system which is a act of monopoly, also your SMS system is limited to java enable phones only

    Why not publish the total character set of your SMS system to gernal public and compare it with SLSI1134!!!!

    Microimage do have more sinhala characters than the unicode SlSI1134

    Go public in news media with the matrix.

  9. I just read through these comments.

    If I can’t say Balu that’s a problem…

  10. Dear Indi

    It is not to say but it is unable to write using only the SLSI1134 or Sinhala unicode

    Read Rawaya Newspaper Sunday 20 Feb 2004 page 12

    And comment

  11. Correction

    it should be (2005)

    Read Rawaya Newspaper Sunday 20 Feb 2005 page 12

    I was in down south (Kosgoda/Duwa Modera) on tSunami releif work last weekend. I had a discussion with affected people about the warnning system and their suggesstions, and one person told me that one of the best would be to trigger all POLICE Stations through their radio systems, so that mobile motorcycle petrols will trigger announcement in those village areas to clear immediately. And they will effectively clear people who are even not willing to go, since it’s POLICE. I found in this village several people have died due to the ressistance they have put to leave the premises and some have been wasting time collecting their valued goods, when others were running leaving everything.

    They say POLICE LOUD SPEAKER announcement is very effective in that area and is quite a good method of alerting people concerned.

  13. Not only Police , But Urban councils, Schools , Temples , Churches can have the same loud speaker system. This is practiced and tested in Japan Daily by giving a musical sound at 6pm.

  14. May be of interest: ITU’s take on the use of ICTs in disaster management, including early wanrings:

  15. A much better discussion of possible contributions of ICTs to disaster management from a conference held in Phuket last week. Bill Gates actually says very sensible things.

  16. The piece below talks about cell broadcasting, a much better solution than SMS. I suggest we continue/convert this thread/discussion (the most productive we have had) into a discussion on ICT applications in early warning.

  17. Just so everyone knows is a scam. Don’t think partnering with them is a good option at all. And I must vouch for the use of sms. A couple of us used sms to communicated post tsunami data up and down, and this was quoted in several US papers as well, including NYT and Wash Post. It works very well, even on congested networks in remote places. I say go with SMS.

  18. Yeah, is evil. They ask for your Hotmail password when you sign up and then Spam every one of your contacts. I’m still getting emails from my friends who signed up, or who had a friend who signed up, ad nauseum

  19. On the Sinhala font problem. I’ve been playing with this plugin for WordPress (this website’s blogging software) that converts text to images. Cold Forged wrote it to use rare fonts, and it seems to work just as well for Sinhala fonts (Kaputa Dotcom is all I tested).

    This is a demo post on a non-existant site. The link will probably die soon. I copied some text from and I have no idea what it says:

    Font Demo

    The copied text looks like this:

    @p`@L`n~nr#v 23 vn @s~n`Ak`{QpwQ @m|jr~ @jnr`l~ vjQr vQ@j~gONvr~{n mhw` stn~ vQr`m nQrk;N kmQtRvt p#mQNQlQ kr a#w.

    While writing a post (like writing this comment) I call the plugin like this:

    ?php echo ImageHeadline_render( ‘v#lQkn~q @k`Lknv`dQy pY@q~X@y~qW sQvQl~ v#sQyn~ hy’ );

    It comes out as Sinhala on the other end, whether the user has a Sinhala font installed or not. The thing works by automatically generating an image of the text. The image generation would crash the server under a million or so hits, I think, but it kinda works.

  20. In early January this year, I discussed the possibility of using SMS as a warning medium with a senior executive of one of sri lanka’s biggest mobile operators. He said that it would be impractical as the messages would take about three days to be delivered due to congestion.

  21. Well, one of the best possibility for mobile warnning is through a CELL Broadcast. Cell Broadcast can be used to isolate certain regions and deliver a message. We are working on a possible solution which is in R&D stage and will update everyone once it’s practical and proven.

  22. We at LIRNEasia had never advocated SMS as a method of disseminating warnings. The concept paper recommends cell broadcasts (para 2.28 and para 4.17). Therefore we are pleased that work is being undertaken in this area. It would be good if the cell broadcast can be linked to some form of alerting device in the handset (ringer or vibrator).

  23. Thats what we are working on, basically once we get the cell, we are going trigger a ring tone with a warnning message in all 3 languages.

  24. I have been reliably informed that cell broadcast has been activated throughout the networks of Dialog and Mobitel. It will be helpful if those networks can provide instructions on how users can use this facility, hardware requirements, etc. It will also be useful if Celltel and Hutcheson can join the discussion.

    What this suggests is that we may be close to achieving the object set out in Recommendation 4.17 in the Concept Paper.

  25. A new use of technology that may be worth discussing:

  26. Another disaster; another set of ideas re use of ICTs . . .

    Talking in the Dark

    Published: September 18, 2005

    When was the last time you heard a “busy tone” on a telephone? Probably not for years. Our phone system is so robust, our mobile phones are so ubiquitous and voice mail and e-mail are such reliable backups that instant, unhindered access to friends, colleagues and relatives has come to seem a right and not a privilege. Indeed, if you include instant-messaging, blogs and cellphone text messages, you might think we’re living in the golden age of communications.

    Except when disaster hits. Two weeks ago, I tried calling a colleague down in New Orleans – and found myself listening to the annoying honk of a busy signal and the static of a dead phone line. Katrina had disrupted the city’s communications grid, and residents and emergency responders were grappling with the chaos that ensued. For a week, just about the only people with communications were those government officials and reporters lucky enough to have two-way radios or satellite phones with adequately charged batteries. Everyone else staggered around in blind ignorance – which helped produce horrifying pandemonium. We saw a similar lesson in 9/11: When communications crumble, so does society.

  27. The biggest flaw in this article is if telephone networks are going to be down, how will this wireless mesh network connect to the Internet, to the outside world? Without power, wifi access points will not work either. Such a mesh network may work if some of the nodes were connected to the Internet using a VSAT placed in a disaster resilient building. But the question of back-up power still remains to be addressed. UPS last at the most for a few hours. Maybe something using solar power?

    LIRNEasia is currently working on a research project where we are deploying different kinds of ICTs as a component of the “last mile” of a early warning system in a number of coastal villages in Sri Lanka to assess their effectiveness in the pre/post disaster role. The WiFi solution proposed in the article above could supplement and extend the role played by VSATs, one of five ICTs that will be deployed. In the villages that are deployed with VSAT, we can create a wifi network connected to the Internet via the VSAT, so schools, govt offices, others with wifi enabled PCs can also access the Internet. So we have more pairs of eyes looking for hazard info than just relying on the telecenter. Multiple uses/users gives us a better “bang for the buck” for this relatively expensive technology.

  28. Yes, Divakar is correct. In case of a disaster like caused by Katrina recently, the entire power system and the entire communication system will go down. So whatever the ‘last mile’ solution it will have no impact. But again, we do talk about warning here, so it is PRIOR TO the disaster, NOT AFTER that. Also not every disaster cut off the entire power system and the entire communication system. In some cases, some parts of these systems may still be up. It is a fact that the Police emergency call centre in Colombo (118) received so many messages immediately after the tsunami hit the coasts of Sri Lanka. Some of these messages were interrupted in the middle. So anyway, the point is, having a disaster warning system with some flaws is still much better than having none.

    Let me also add that it will be natural for people to promote certain technologies or even products either for commercial reasons or sometimes because they just love the technology. With or without Katrina there are enough WiFi lovers among us. I do not think we should either accept or reject any technology just because one is promoting it.

  29. what are the technologies and tools we have to use to develop a system for send tamil/singala sms via phone to phone

  30. Fadill, Please read the discussion thread above. The language issues are discussed in depth by people who are directly involved (LIRNEasia is not).

  31. Another plea for the use of SMS in emergency warnings:

    In Sri Lanka after the tsunami, SMS worked but was subject to delays (not all; but most SMS took 3-4 hrs to reach the recipient). The thread above discusses all aspects of the problem. Why are we not focusing on cell broadcasts?

  32. From Kusal Epa:

    Cellular Emergancey Alert System

    The possibility of using SMS broadcast to alert users in a particular area in the event of a disaster is being promoted by CEASA – Cellular Emergency Alert System Association which has taken the initiative of promoting this concept in various countries. Further details are available in the website

    In normal SMS message sending quite a lot of network resources are used to individually address SMS messages to different users. The signicance of this system is that Cell broadcast facility which is available in the GSM system is used to alert users in a required base station area (cell) where the broadcast message is displayed in all phones. As this system uses less netowrk resources even in the event of mobile network being congested the possibility of alerting users is there.

    Copied below is a news item of a Cellular Alert system trial in The Netherlands

    Dutch test sending Disaster Text Messages

    Agence France-Presse

    THE HAGUE, Netherlands

    The Dutch government started testing a special warning system that will send text messages to mobile phones to alert the population in the event of a disaster. The technology for the system, called “cellbroadcast,” allows the authorities to send text messages to mobile phone users in a specific area. On Wednesday the first tests started in Zoetermeer, a town in the west central Netherlands. “The advantage of this system is that it allows us to send messages without having to know the phone numbers of the users in the region. Instead of sending a message to a specific known cell phone you can send a text to all cell phones in specific zone,” Frank Wassenaar of the Dutch interior ministry told AFP.

    The cell broadcast system will be used in addition to the other warning systems in place to be used if disaster strikes, such as sirens and special emergency broadcasts on radio and television. The project is a joint effort of the Dutch ministries of health, transport and economic affairs. The ministries will pay some $three million to use the cell broadcast technology over the next two years.

    The government is working with mobile phone operators KPN, Vodafone and Telfort, which cover some 85 percent of all Dutch cell phone owners. In the future, tests with the system are planned in the Dutch capital Amsterdam and the south western province of Zeeland .

  33. Haven’t this made to the Guinness book of world records yet as the longest blog ever?

    Just kidding. Some news in goes to more than 400-500 comments.

  34. SMS used by victims buried under a massive mudslide to tell rescuers they are alive:

  35. hi i dont know how to connect my phone in to tsunami alert system if anybody knows please informe me im sri lankan boy thanks

  36. The Tsunami Alarm System with SMS to mobile phones is finally there.

    Coupon code for discounts: INDONESIA607PR10

    Please contact me for sales partner (Hotels, Newspapers, Journalists, Travel guides, Shops, …) issues.


  37. Ralph,

    I am someone who visited and had discussions about your SMS based tSunami warnning system during CommunicAsia in Singapore. Eventhough am yet to get a clear idea how your whole thing works (backend), it seems that it’s not a viable warnning method when it comes to country specific warnnings since many issues/areas needs to be covered.

    Some basics facts are,

    – Credibility of the warnning/Warnning Authority, Agency
    – Addressing SMS congestion issues (overloads), are the systems configured through local/country specific operators to ensure priority SMS delivery?
    – Addressing area specific warnnings
    – Localization
    – Practicality of the whole thing

    If you look at this product for general warnning receive method for anyone who’s interested to receive tSunami alerts this might come handy as long as he’s willing to pay a price for it as well. (like tourists etc.) But still it all depends on how effective and credible is your information gathering mechanism and dispatching mechanism etc.

  38. Hi,

    This information may be of interest to people going to the beach and coastal areas, for vacation.
    I came across a very interesting website to do with Tsunami Warnings via SMS to my mobile phone –

    I’d been wondering if there was some service available that I could access while I was on vacation at the beach – I’d heard that there was.

    …and a 3 month “Holiday” subscription only cost me $19 for peace of mind.

    Definitely worth checking out –


  39. There was a very interesting technology that I saw in action recently that used FM radio (stations) to transmit SMS messages to special watches that were able to receive the messages without any GSM / CDMA capability. The ability to use ordinary FM signals to broadcast SMS messages I thought was fascinating. I was told that the device that enabled a radio tower to broadcast SMS messages was about the size of a medium size brick, and would grow smaller as it evolved.


  40. The Indian Govt is promoting a multilingual (14 languages), sms-based alerting system. They claim it will be impervious to traffic jams and will be in place by 2007. In the first posting above in Jan 2005, I had said India had mobile teledensity of 5% and hence only a small fraction of our population will benefit from a mobile-based solutions. The mobile teledensity (CDMA GSM) in one and a half years in India has doubled (!!) and currently (Sept 2006) stands at 11.75% but this number is still too small for mobile-based solutions to reach most people in India. I hope the Indian govt’s conception of a national early warning system does not rest solely on this sms-based solution and they put some hard work in also developing the last-mile of the hazard dissemination system. As LIRNEasia is doing in Sri Lanka.

    Indian have a new disaster management system by 2007: Kapil Sibal
    Sibal on Friday launched a multi-lingual disaster warning system using mobile phones.

    The Indian Meteorological Department will post alerts on its Web site which will be sent as text messages to mobile phones and via wireless public address systems by India-based Geneva Software Technologies, marketing director Amar Singh said.

    However, the alert will not be sent to everyone, as only those cell phone users who are likely to be in the affected area will receive the message.
    Alert in regional languages

    As soon as a warning is sounded, the software converts it into 14 different regional languages, mostly along the coastal regions, before finally transmitting it to your cell phones.

    Moreover, even if one misses the message, he/she will get a recorded phone message.

    “Our messaging centre identifies a local telecom tower and then sends the message,” said R Amar Singh, Geneva Technologies.

    Apart from natural disasters, the system can be used to alert people even in the case of terrorist strikes like the Mumbai blasts, and officials claim that it won’t be affected by any network congestion.

    Messages to get priority

    “The message sent from the company will get priority and all other messages will be stopped,” said Renu Bapana, Scientist, Technology Development Board[..]