Aug 20, 2014

How an Open Data Feed changed Israel’s Civil Defense



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Israel is under frequent, as frequent as every 10 minutes, rocket attack from Gaza.  While the Iron Dome rocket interception system has become famous as a technological marvel in the defense of the country, there are other technological marvels of note as well.

The first step of any civil defense system is getting the civilians out of the way or under cover.  Israel has a network of neighborhood bomb shelters, building bomb shelters, and (in new construction) a “hardened room” in every private residence and on every floor of every office building.  When air raids were measured in hours or tens of minutes, all of these were adequate together with a nationwide network of air raid sirens.

But modern circumstances have brought two new problems:

- Rocket attack warnings are measured in SECONDS.  Fifteen seconds in towns near border regions, and 90-120 seconds in the center of the country.

- As the country has suffered suburban sprawl, built malls and cinema mega-plexes, modern skyscrapers, joined the problems of traffic jams, and built it all with modern climate control (meaning sealed or closed windows and A/C), HEARING alarm sirens has become a problem.

Like any government agency, the Israeli Civil Defense department – a division of the Israeli army – has implemented big project approaches to these problems.  A radio based pager like messaging device… too expensive except for large businesses or office buildings (which can then manually alert tenants).  A cell based pager messaging device with digital output… with reception problems and a complicated interface requiring special software – again making it of limited use.  The newest addition, SMS messages to all cell phones from cell towers in an alert area, a massive project that required integration with all the cell phone providers but only results in a regular SMS “ding” – making it useless.

A lot of effort and a lot of money with the problem continuing to grow and the current solutions offering only limited impact.

But then something amazing happened.  The Civil Defense department public web site integrated a real time alert box onto the site.  It was unnoticed by almost everybody except for a young man in southern Israel in a community frequently targeted.  Since a web page is, by nature, open source, he looked into the page to determine where they were getting their data – their real time data of civil defense alerts for Israel.

He took the data feed, a nicely formed JSON data URL, set up a server polling it, and built an Android client.  This became the first “Code Red Israel” alert app.  Someone else contacted him and asked to use his server, and built an iPhone edition.  This was 2 years ago.

With the current conflict and the terrorists expanding their targeting to civilian cities and towns across Israel, the apps gained notoriety.  But so did the people interested in creating additional abilities, options, and clients.  And an explosion in apps and abilities has been created over the past two months.

Examples include: real time alert monitoring web pages (in Hebrew and English), extensions for Chrome, iPhone and iPad apps that offer various sounds, filtering by city, maps of alert locations, commenting to share thoughts of being targeted, Android apps to do all of the same – in Hebrew, English, or Russian (major languages used by segments of the population in Israel).  And like any app category, there’s become a competition between apps on offering the most useful features – even though most of the apps / pages / extensions do not charge or even offer ads (meaning they’re covering their development and server costs out of pocket).

Today while waiting in line at a grocery store or sitting in an office, almost everyone’s phone will go off if there’s an alert – some for only the local area, some for the whole country (as each person prefers).

There’s a key additional point.  The data feed seems to be providing the alert data seconds before the actual sirens go off.  So it is possible to get the alert up to ten seconds before the sirens actually go off!  (Depending on the speed of the monitoring service.)

So while the Civil Defense department spent years and millions on building up a technological infrastructure, their biggest success was by accidentally offering an open JSON data feed.

My personal alert project is a web 2.0 site at http://IsraelSirens.com.

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