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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Town looks to smartphone app for help in disasters

Waka Dobashi

Nov. 15, 2017

Japan has long had warning systems in case of natural disasters. Each municipality faces its own challenges in reaching as many people as possible. A town in Ibaraki Prefecture is trying to improve its emergency warning system following a severe flood.

In September 2015, heavy rains pounded the Tohoku and Kanto regions. Three died in flooding in Ibaraki Prefecture, while 12 others lost their lives in the disaster. One of the fatalities occurred in the town of Sakai, where around 500 homes were flooded and 76 residents had to be rescued after being stranded in the deluge.

Among them was Aki Saito. She recalls checking weather information on TV, but she didn't feel that she was in danger. Later, she felt threatened. By then, water had already risen to one meter inside her home.

Like every other household in Sakai, Saito's home was equipped to receive emergency information from the town government. But she was too busy with her children to notice the alert. "I don't remember hearing the order to evacuate. The wireless turned out to be quite useless," she says.

Sakai Town has relied on the wireless system for decades. But it did not always work well. "Some people say they did notice a message was being aired, but they couldn't quite hear what it said. So it's fair to say our system failed to convey the emergency information to all residents," says Seiki Nakamura of the Sakai Town Office.

One researcher is testing a more effective system. Professor Toshinari Nagasaka at Rikkyo University in Tokyo specializes in disaster crisis management. He's developing a system that relies on smartphones. Residents are invited to install an app and register where they live. Whenever authorities issue an alert, the app automatically reads out the message. Users can access more detailed information with a simple tap.

Another major problem with messages via speakers is that the broadcasts for all areas are on a single channel. So it's difficult for residents to identify the parts of the message that are relevant to them. The smartphone app is much more effective because it relays information separately to each area. Residents can understand immediately the danger they face.

Professor Nagasaka recently briefed community leaders. He was hoping to run a demonstration -- but instead, he faced an unexpected problem. Many found it difficult to use the app. "I'm not used to smartphones, and the main takeaway for me today is that I'll have to learn how to use it," says an elderly resident.

The municipality tested the system last month during a disaster drill. In the scenario, the Tone River threatened to break its banks due to torrential rains. An evacuation alert was broadcast simultaneously via wireless and the smartphone app.

Households received specific orders to evacuate. "Please evacuate to an elementary school in your district," the app announced. Residents could instantly check more detailed information on their smartphones. "It's easy to use. Once you learn to tap the screen to see the alert, it's easy to get moving quickly," says a resident.

"We'll ask 200 or even 1,000 residents to use the app, and we'll monitor how the information gets through. That's what we need to focus on," says Sakai Mayor Masahiro Hashimoto. "Using this tool during emergencies is one thing, but I also want to work with the local community to identify potential uses in ordinary times as well," says Nagasaka. He's now developing a multilingual version of his app to make sure absolutely no one is left behind.