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SMS Saves Lives

Here's an example of a government making use of changing technologies and new infrastructure to positive ends:

SHANGHAI, China - With Typhoon Kaemi roaring toward China's crowded southeast, Dr. Yang was sealing his apartment windows against the pounding rain when his cell phone buzzed to life.

"Typhoon forecast to make land this evening," said the message sent to millions of mobile phones in the coastal city of Jinjiang and surrounding Fujian province. "Please attend to preparations."

The article goes on to describe how the government of the Fujian province has sent more than 18 million SMS messages so far this typhoon season. There's no telling how many deaths and injuries this effort has helped to prevent, especially when you consider the fact that everyone who receives an SMS typhoon warning probably spreads the word to several folks who did not.


When the 2004 tsunami devasted Indonesia and other parts of southeast asia, there was a good deal of discussion about what kind of warning systems could be put in place to mitigate against such horrific loss of life in the future. My contribution to that discussion was that we need a better educated and more proactive mass media, that institutions like CNN and the BBC could do a lot more than they did to help spread the word. One of the shortcomings of that plan was that not very many people in some of the most hard-hit regions -- remote areas in Indonesia, particularly -- have access to a TV or radio. Certainly, an SMS swarning system such as described above would have been some help in Bandar Aceh and other developed areas, but again no help at all for those who live outside the reach of electronic communications.

I have long asserted that technological development represents, overall, a net plus for humanity -- both in our ability to survive and in our ability to find meaning and to lead more fulfilling lives. I can't think of anything that makes that case better than the contrast between those folks in Jinjiang who received early and sufficient warning to stay away from the water and their doomed counterparts in Indonesia a year and a half ago for whom no warning was possible.

Technological development. Faster, please.


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I don't think there is a spot left in the world that does not have cell phones. I wish we had cell phone coverage that was as good as Thailand and India's.

Nobody watches CNN or the BBC anymore so your original point is the best point. Use cell phones for emergency communications.

If you don't count satellite phone coverage, there are actually quite a few spots in the developing world -- and even remote areas in this country -- where there is no signal to be had. CNN and the BBC (I was really talking about BBC radio more than BBC TV in the original entry) have stiff competition from other networks, the Internet, and so forth but to state that "no one watches" them any more may be a little too broad.

Hand in hand with the issue of technological development is economic development. Even if there had been a massive broadcast SMS effort in Aceh province on that December day in 2004, with sufficient mobile coverage, most of those people were just too poor to have a phone to begin with. So that's something else, in this case, that China has going for it.

With so much phone spam being sent via SMS, the effectiveness of emergency notification has to be suspect. Maybe a special /different alerting can be sent to phones to let people know that this SMS message is an emergency type and should be paid attention.

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