Xiaomi’s Approach to Earthquake Alerts Hits The Nail Right on the Head

In 2013, when an earthquake hit China’s highly-seismic Sichuan province leaving hundreds of people dead and thousands injured, global tech titans Samsung and Apple rushed in to lend a hand by donating millions of dollars in disaster relief funds. While intrinsically benevolent, it is hard to disregard the fact that the move smelled of a PR stunt pulled by two rival behemoths desperate to dominate China’s increasingly competitive smartphone market.

Five years later when Sichuan faced another M7.0 tremor, it was the local tech leaders that were queueing up to showcase their generosity. 

Alibaba sent out alerts to the users of their travel platform Fliggy, reminding them to be careful, and allowed full cancellation of hotel and vacation bookings for people traveling to Jiuzhaigou – the epicenter of the earthquake – within 7 days after the disaster. The company’s e-commerce and logistics arms, Taobao and Cainiao, organized the delivery of emergency supplies to the area, while AutoNavi, Alibaba’s mapping service, operated a high-precision disaster relief map.

The southwestern logistics branch of JD.com donated emergency medical kits, lighting equipment, tents, and other supplies to rescuers and deployed personnel in Sichuan to form a logistics transport convoy.

Tencent’s Public Welfare Foundation donated 10 million yuan to support emergency relief, post-disaster reconstruction, and public education on disaster prevention and mitigation. Other prominent local companies including Suning, SF Express and China Mobile also tuned in, donating supplies, dispatching transport and launching hotlines. 

The interesting thing about this brand of altruism is that it usually occurs post-factum. The corporations are eager to share and donate when all the damage has already been done, and, sadly, when there is enough publicity. However, in no way does this discredit their contribution to helping people in a difficult situation. 

One aspect of corporations’ emergency support tactics that could improve would be timeliness. The current level of technological development surely allows for more creative ways of dealing with natural disasters than simply sending tents and canned food to those who managed to survive the cataclysm. 

Unlike its corporate brethren, Xiaomi saw an opportunity to utilize its tech expertise in a more thoughtful fashion. The Chinese electronics giant announced at its annual developer conference held in Beijing that its MIUI 11-based devices, namely smartphones and Mi TV set-top boxes, will now be equipped with an early earthquake warning feature. The trial mode of the software update was first rolled out in Sichuan in September.

The director of the Sichuan Provincial Key Laboratory of Earthquake Early Warning, and director of the Disaster Reduction Institute, Dr. Wang Tun, who worked closely with Xiaomi on developing the feature, noted that operating system-level access to earthquake early warning is an unprecedented case and a major milestone in the field of disaster warning. 

“The generation of earthquake early warning (EW) signals was allowed by the capabilities of our institute,” said Dr. Wang explaining the nature of his cooperation with Xiaomi, “but the other key point was the transmission of alert signals from the EW center to the public. Xiaomi has cell phones, televisions and other AIoT terminals, and reaching those terminals is an important issue, since the general public does not care about disasters at normal times, so people always forget to check alerts or even download an app. What Xiaomi did was connect their servers to the servers of our institute so that the signals can immediately be transmitted to the public who could be affected by the earthquake.”

When talking about why such a system has not been devised before by other companies including tech giants like Apple, Dr. Wang noted that the possibility of an earthquake in California, Apples home-base, is quite low compared to China. Thus, both the companies and the public do not regard it as a pressing issue. 

Interestingly, Apple did at one point provide native earthquake alerts to iPhones in Japan, following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, according to Endgadget. Xiaomi, however, seems determined to leverage its leading position in AIoT to make the service truly revolutionary by providing EW alerts on all sorts of devices. Yet, for now, smartphones and TVs seem to be doing the job well enough. 

An important concern related to the mass roll out of public early warning earthquake alerts is the possible panic they could cause among people, most of whom are not experts and would not know how to interpret the information that they are getting.

“People in the government always worry about this issue. However, the idea is that people will be educated first. Before sending any alerts, Xiaomi will first show you a banner explaining what is EW, clarifying that it is not a prediction and also outlining possible evacuation routes. So, we are not worried about any panic,” asserts Dr. Wang Tun.

Naturally, an advancement of this scale especially in a country regularly pummeled by forceful earthquakes could not be ignored by Xiaomi’s smartphone competitors. Many of Xiaomi’s rivals decided to join hands with the company to make use of the service that has so far been commended by the residents of the areas where it has been introduced. Dr. Wang jokingly mentions that even Apple is welcome to join the cause, adding that Xiaomi’s goal is to allow all smartphone makers to embed this feature in their products.

If you want to explore China’s tech ecosystem but don’t know where to start, check out DecodeChina, a one-week immersion program organized by insiders from Pandaily. The latest installment will take place in Beijing and Shenzhen on January 13-19, 2020. Visit decode.pandaily.com to apply and secure a spot!