How the Internet of Things can help quake relief
I sat at my computer on Saturday and felt my chair shaking. Within a minute, I was logged on to Twitter and sharing my experience, like dozens of others across India. Over the next few minutes, I had checked and shared a link from the Indian Met Department that tracks seismic events (it still had no information yet). Many others chipped in. Over the next few minutes, we got news of the epicentre being in Nepal.columns Updated: Apr 27, 2015 16:43 IST
I sat at my computer on Saturday and felt my chair shaking. Within a minute, I was logged on to Twitter and sharing my experience, like dozens of others across India. Over the next few minutes, I had checked and shared a link from the Indian Met Department that tracks seismic events (it still had no information yet). Many others chipped in. Over the next few minutes, we got news of the epicentre being in Nepal.
Over the next 24 hours, I stumbled on a Facebook app that lets you track friends and let them know if you are safe, and received a Whatsapp message giving me precautions on what to do in the event of a quake.
I thought of 2001, when Bhuj in Gujarat was rattled by a serious quake, and there was no Facebook, Twitter or Whatsapp. I was working with Reuters then and had done a story about how Gujaratis around the world rallied over internet sites such as Panjokutch.com (run by people from the Kutchi region) to raise aid for victims. It was still early days then for the internet, which, thanks to smartphones, has made broadcasters out of us all.
Calling for blood donation, relief information and donations over Twitter and Facebook are now common. Online payments and crowdfunding are easy.
There is more to come. Hindustan Times carries a story of how Indian seismologists are aiming for an earthquake prediction model through a deep borehole laboratory which will permit continuous monitoring of an intra-plate seismic zone.
This should logically take us towards the Internet of Things (IoT), a hot technology trend under which machines have sensors that transmit data over the internet, just like humans sharing data on Twitter. In a future world, a well-made prediction using data from sensors can be transmitted to social media real-time (live) - potentially shortening the time required for evacuation, rescue or relief -- a lot like how business software applications approve leave these days for corporate employees.
Libelium, a company that makes an open source software platform for IoT, lists "50 Sensor Applications for A Smarter World" in which there is one for structural health (to monitor vibrations and material conditions in buildings, bridges and historical monuments) and another for early detection of earthquakes.
EE Times (eetimes.com), which serves the electronics community, said in a blog last year that the Jawbone UP (a health tracker device that provides personalized insight into how its users sleep, move and eat) was able to wake up as many as as 93% of its wearers in a 15-mile (24 km) radius during a San Francisco Bay Area earthquake at 3.20am.
"Assuming Jawbone knows the number of people using its devices, and can pinpoint them on a map alongside their normal habits, a drop-off in sleep at a particular location could alert the company or family interested in monitoring a user in distress," the blog said.
Introducing a paper titled "An Internet of Things ontology for earthquake emergency evaluation and response" in the respected IEEE's (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) digital library called Xplore, the authors say: "Indeed, recent works highlighted how the IoT technology may be profitably used in several scenarios in order to accomplish complex tasks where physical objects are active participants."
Science news website Phys.org noted last year with a sense of irony that Silicon Valley has made apps to tell people that their air conditioner has broken but despite its sitting on a seismically sensitive zone, there is no earthquake alert system for the public. It is clear that the march to make it happen has just begun.
The writer tweets at @madversity