South Africa - Cape Town - 13 February 2020 - Wesley Diphoko, Editor of Fast Company. Picture Courtney Africa/African News Agency(ANA)
South Africa - Cape Town - 13 February 2020 - Wesley Diphoko, Editor of Fast Company. Picture Courtney Africa/African News Agency(ANA)

The Infonomist: Earthquake is a wakeup call to enhance warning systems

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published Oct 9, 2020

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CAPE TOWN - On Saturday, September 28, a strong magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck about 1 600km offshore of South Africa in Cape Town.

The Council for Geosciences (CGS) on Sunday confirmed another earth tremor was felt at 9.12am. Fortunately, no one was injured in the process and the CGS confirmed later that there was no need to panic. The only reason for panic is a lack of communication. Is South Africa able to warn its citizens ahead of time about earthquakes and other imminent dangers?

The manner in which communications were handled about recent incidents is a real concern. South Africa can learn a lot from countries such as Mexico where such incidents are regular. Mexico has used technology to ensure that its citizens are better informed and warned ahead of time about earthquakes.

Mexico City is one of the few places to have a public earthquake warning system. It was the first system of its kind in the world, up and running just six years after the 1985 earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people in the capital.

The Mexico City system, called Sasmex, began its life as a project in 1990, and has come a long way since then -- it wasn’t until recently that it began operating in such a sophisticated manner. A few years ago, Mexican officials realised that Sasmex wasn’t living up to its potential, and they worked towards developing a better system. The problem with previous systems was that the various agencies and states had not organized around the technology and infrastructure they had.

The system’s sensors were picking up hundreds of earthquakes each year, but they were unable to instantly notify people of the impending danger. The authorities understood that if there’s a big earthquake, a warning needs to go out to everyone immediately, and that’s what the new and improved system helped Mexico to accomplish over the last few years.

The Sasmex system was made smarter and more configurable. It can now be adjusted to ignore earthquakes under a threshold. If an event is measured at less than magnitude 5.0, no one is notified. If an earthquake is detected between magnitude 5.0 and 6.0, only officials in the relevant states are notified, but the public is not notified directly. There is also a level of customisation in the ability to notify only those regions that need to be notified based on their distance from the epicentre. Once alerts are issued, tens of thousands of receivers in participating cities receive the signal.

Although South Africa has a lower risk for earthquakes, the recent incident should serve as a warning to better prepare for such an event. As Covid-19 has shown, countries have been caught off guard for many risks that require citizens to be better informed ahead of time. This highlights the need for better communication systems that are better accessible to provide an early warning not just for earthquakes but for any potential risks.

Such a warning and data system could cover a variety of areas to avoid another failure of communication when it’s needed to save lives. There’s no better time to develop a dashboard with data and artificial intelligences capability on various risks. It may just save lives when another earthquake hits South Africa or any other major risk.

Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of Fast Company (SA) magazine.

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