The telling lack of timely SMS news alerts on the arrest and detention of Tamils

Writing on the arrest and detention of hundreds of Tamils in the South of Sri Lanka, Ange in an article published on Groundviews had a very interesting observation on SMS based news services in Sri Lanka at a time such as this:

I wonder at the comfortable ignorance the majority of us enjoy being in. We don’t want to be perceived as “not in the in” so we have cable TV, maybe an internet connection or maybe even a subscription to receive news alerts so that we have access to news from all over the world. But we don’t seem too perturbed by the fact that maybe something is happening right under our noses. We don’t mind that we may be the last ones to know. Some of us even don’t mind never knowing at all.

After my news alerts facility became a paid one, I thought I’d not think too much about the cost (in addition to all the other levies etc on my phone bill) and keep it as it would be useful to be in the loop. But as a paying customer I feel slightly let down that I was not informed and instead was made to look like a fool when my friend asked me if I had not heard [about the detentions]. I’m seriously considering unsubscribing and I’m miffed that I didn’t save the details of how one should go about doing so.

I wrote an SMS to JNW (Sri Lanka’s first SMS news service and in my opinion, though struggling to compete with new services on Mobitel and Dialog, still the most useful) just before I wrote this post:

Good morning! Have not received any news of the on going arrests of Tamils. Did you send an alert? It is supposed to be over 1500 according to one web news report I read this morning. Did you send one I missed? This is news! 

JNW’s reponse was that they were working on a story and would have it out soon. I’ll bet that once JNW comes out with it, Ada Derana and Lankapuwath on Mobitel may follow with similar SMS alerts of their own, but will never be the first to run with this story.

The problem with mobiles in emergencies…

Is that they often don’t work.

This photo of my mobile phone’s screen was taken around two and a half hours after a powerful bomb rocked Nugegoda, a suburb in Colombo, killing around 17 and injured over 30. It was Sri Lanka’s second bomb for the day. I live around 3 minutes away from the place where the bomb went off in Nugegoda and had just returned home when I heard the sound of the explosion.

Notice the icon between battery power level indicator and the Bluetooth icon? It’s been like that for the past two hours.

I received three SMS news alerts on the Nugegoda incident between 6pm – 7pm. One from JNW, two from Ada Derana. At 9.08pm I received 7 SMS’s in quick succession (possibly after network congestion eased up) from both JNW and Ada Derana, with updates on casualties and news that all schools in the Western Province were to be closed on the 29th and 30th.

However, for around two hours after the bomb went off in Nugegoda, not a single SMS went out from my phone. Also from 6pm to 8pm, not a single call (to mobile as well as land lines) I tried was patched through. While I was able to sporadically get messages, incoming and outgoing voice and outgoing SMS communications were completely off the air.

Thought there’s been more than a little emphasis on the potential of mobiles to help emergency response and facilitate the dissemination of vital news and information during emergencies in Sri Lanka, my own experience suggests that there is still some way to go before we can rely on them completely as devices resilient to sudden surges in network traffic. However, as the first images from the incident demonstrate, mobiles increasingly used by eye witnesses and even victims to record the incident through camera phone photos.

As some countries have priority to emergency response SMSs, I wonder if the same be done with news alerts, given that their use / subscriber base seems to be expanding with new Sinhala and Tamil based SMS news services entering the market?

What did you experience when you tried to send an SMS or call today or an emergency in the past?

P.S. Interestingly, my usually glacial paced ADSL connection from SLT (the Nugegoda exchange can’t be more than 50m from where the bomb went off) worked perfectly throughout the incident. Bizarrely, I got a data rate of around 215Kb/s at around 7pm, which is about the rate I get on Sundays and Public Holidays. Can’t figure that one out – maybe everybody in Nugegoda offices just logged off and scrambled home?