Israelis turn to smartphones to track incoming rocket attacks


Screenshots of the Red Alert app on an iPhone. (Ruth Eglash/The Washington Post)

JERUSALEM – It might beep like an update for Candy Crush or an incoming Snapchat message on your phone, but the Red Alert app — which provides real-time alerts when rockets are launched toward Israel and has been downloaded to smartphones by more than a half million people in recent days — is much more than a game.

Over the past three days, since Israel launched its offensive against Hamas and other militants in Gaza, more than 300 rockets have been fired from the coastal enclave into Israeli territory, hitting Israelis cities more than 60 miles away and sending Israelis running into bomb shelters.

Although warning sirens wail and Israeli radio stations and TV channels interrupt their broadcasts to alert citizens to incoming rockets, for some people it's just not enough. With smartphones becoming a more integral part of daily life everywhere, for those who have downloaded it, the Red Alert app provides an extra sense of security.

“It gives us a sense of control in a situation where there is no control,” said writer and journalist Debra Kamim, who lives in Tel Aviv. “It's especially useful at night because people are worried they won’t hear the sirens while they sleep, and this way they can have the phone next to their beds.”

“It's not a game, but if it's on your phone, then at least there is a little bit of fun in a very scary situation,” she said.

In addition to providing constant code red alerts from towns and communities across Israel, the app also has a social media element allowing users to write comments and share information about each new round of rocket fire.

Ari Sprung, who developed the app together with Kobi Snir, said that it was initially created for residents in southern Israel, who have experienced rocket fire for most of the past decade. He said that a previous version was already in use during the last flare up in tensions in 2012, but the two decided to update the app over the past year and a half, releasing it in English, too. Some 50,000 people in the United States have downloaded the English version in the past few days, he said.

“I don’t know if it's saving lives, but it’s a great tool for letting people know what is going on in real time, and it gives them a personal alarm system,” he said, adding that the rush by Israelis across the country to download the app — which is for Android and iOS platforms — caused the app’s server to crash.

Fixed now, Sprung said: “People who have families in the south are downloading it because they want to see what is going on there” and others just want to be kept informed about the latest developments. He refused to divulge exactly how he receives the information on the rocket launches but did say it come directly from Israeli military sources.

For Joanne Shoshani, a teacher who lives in the Jerusalem area, the app is a way of showing sympathy for other communities under more intense rocket fire, as well as allowing her to keep track of the news without having to watch TV all day long.

“I downloaded it yesterday because I wanted to feel connected even when I was not watching the news,” she said.

Now, said Shoshani, “I can check it first thing in the morning to see where the rockets have fallen, and I can also see if there is a rocket heading towards me.”

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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