IDF Clipping Wings of Creators of Rocket Alert Apps

Concern over reliability of info keeps army from cooperating with developer who invented app to alert citizens about rockets.

Ofer Vaknin

The heavy rocket barrages launched at Israel from the Gaza Strip in recent weeks have sparked an outburst of creativity among application developers who want to contribute their knowledge and experience to help their fellow citizens.

For example, Assaf Lavie sought to help by inventing an app that would notify people about rocket alerts. But when he contacted the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command to request access to a link that would provide real-time information about rocket launches, he was told that civilians aren’t allowed to access the relevant database.

This response was given despite the fact that such a link actually exists, and Lavie even found it on the Home Front Command’s website. When he pointed this out to command personnel via Facebook, they reiterated that they have no way to give him access, adding that they weren’t the ones who created the link. Later, they said it was intended for major news outlets.

A senior IDF officer later denied that the link was created for the purpose of conveying information, and explained that one of the main reasons the Home Front Command doesn’t allow direct access to the database is that it fears non-IDF-developed apps won’t work properly if they are given access.

"There’s a likelihood," said the officer, commenting on the sort of app Lavie invented, "of problems and deviations in the timing of the alert, stemming from infrastructure and support that don’t necessarily provide a solution for emergency situations.”

He stressed that in addition to the main system for alerting citizens at times of rocket launches, which is based on a nationwide network of sirens, supplementary warnings can be received via radio and television. He also noted that the Taldor company recently won a Defense Ministry tender to develop an app that will aid in such circumtances.

For his part, Lavie thinks the IDF should have more faith in external developers. “It’s very good that the Home Front Command is releasing the data, even if not in the most well-documented and organized manner possible,” he said. “But there are many very talented developers who have created websites and apps with lightning speed, based on the little information they have managed to find.”

Indeed, Lavie isn’t the only one involved in this particular realm: More than a few developers have found links to information they seek on their own. Take, for instance, the free Tzeva Adom app – named for the IDF code word for rocket alerts, "Color Red.” Recently developed, it has already been downloaded tens of thousands of times. That effort joins other apps with names like “the next war” or “protected space,” some of which were created during the last round of fighting in Gaza two years ago.

Morad Stern, who in 2012 began mapping all the protected spaces in Tel Aviv where people can find shelter from rockets, has now expanded his app to the rest of the country. He has been trying to get support and information from the relevant local authorities, but some don’t even have a list of the shelters in their vicinity.

It’s true there have been cases of outside apps having bugs and missing rocket alerts, as is evident from the criticism of them in the media. Nevertheless, Lavie thinks that if the IDF made life easier for the developers and provided them with better infrastructure, everyone would benefit from it, and there would be many fewer errors.

“If the source of the information were well documented, it would only improve the reliability and speed of these developments,” he said. “No other country has such a concentration of speedy developers as Israel does, and projects like Open Knesset are good examples of how if the authorities just release the information, good people will take care of presenting it to the public in a friendly, convenient fashion.

“If the Home Front Command is working on its own application, that's all well and good,” Lavie added. “But this really needn’t come at the expense of open access to information. If there are currently technical limitations that make the command prefer to have only specific organizations access the data (for example, due to capacity problems), then it could simply say so. It doesn’t need to give dubious answers like ‘the information doesn’t exist’ or ‘the information is classified.’ Everyone has the same goal, and it’s better to cooperate and help than to assume that the ordinary citizen is an unreliable amateur.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good,” Lavie continued. “It’s easy to criticize when a large organization tries to act speedily and releases incomplete information, but that’s a mistake. Because of such criticism, organizations will hesitate to act quickly, and in the end, we all wait years for some ‘perfect’ development that arrives belatedly and is no longer relevant. We should praise the Home Front Command for the information it already makes accessible and encourage it to be even more open with the public.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Office said in response that, “Aside from the means available to the citizenry today, the Home Front Command is developing supplementary warning methods that include, inter alia, an app. Their goal is a pinpointed warning that will reach every citizen based on where he is located. At this stage, development of these systems hasn’t yet been completed, but they will be disseminated for use by Israel’s citizens once their development has been completed. It should be stressed that the proposed developments and technological means are supplemental warning methods, to be used in addition to the siren system.”