Why didn’t warnings race around the Web ahead of the tsunami? We live at a time when news of Scott Peterson’s guilty verdict can spread in minutes from cell phone text messages sent from inside the courtroom to millions of people across the planet. Yet no one took advantage of the Web as the tsunami dashed toward shorelines.
"An effective viral campaign could’ve been launched in minutes," says Toronto-based tech author Don Tapscott.
Why didn’t thousands of tourists’ cell phones chirp with a call or text message saying, "Run away!"? Why didn’t BlackBerrys buzz with e-mail? Why didn’t TV sets at resorts show CNN reporting where the waves might hit next?
"These questions are going to haunt us," says Yrjo Lansipuro at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, a nation that lost about 200 citizens who were in the regions hit by the tsunamis.
"Could a warning have reached people in time?"
Let’s say that I, and I alone, knew that a major disaster would strike the Indian coast in three hours’ time. What would I do? I admire the State Department in many regards, but calling them would not be my first instinct (it takes long enough to get an ordinary reimbursement processed there). I would try the following:
1. Post a warning on MR and Volokh.com, with suitably serious language, and a plea to spread the word.
2. Call or email the few people I know in India.
3. Google to the phone numbers of tourist hotels on the coast, call them up, and sound serious, lying if necessary.
How many people, if any, would such efforts save? Probably not very many, unless I got lucky at the hotel level. How would I phrase the warnings to sound credible, elicit cooperation, and minimize free-rider problems? Keep in mind that cranks predict earthquakes all the time, what is to distinguish me from them? Furthermore no local wants to scare away potential tourists or customers.
Our best bet may be coordinated cell phone warnings sent to customers in the affected regions:
…we now have a system in place that enables us to issue a warning to customers of Finnish mobile operators in any region of the world with 30 minutes’ notice…