Tremors in the system

Grad student explores politics behind Mexico’s public, early alert earthquake technology

When an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck Mexico City in 1985, it and its aftershocks devastated the capital, collapsing hundreds of structures and claiming the lives of more than 10,000 people in a matter of days. In the aftermath of this natural disaster, the government began funding development of the world’s first public early earthquake alert system in hopes of preventing future tragedies. The Sistema de Alerta Sísmica (SAS) launched in 1991 with only 12 sensory stations strung along the country’s west coast. Now known as the Sistema de Alerta Sísmica Mexicano (SASMEX), it has grown to include 98 sensory stations which detect earthquakes near their sources and issues speedy warnings, giving people in population centers like Mexico City and Oaxaca crucial seconds to evacuate or take shelter before quakes reach them. 

SASMEX has successfully alerted Mexican people to hundreds of earthquakes since its inception, but Beth Reddy, graduate student in cultural anthropology, suggests that this life-saving system is not being utilized to its fullest potential. As California scientists and policy makers work to develop a similar system here in the face of significant budget and political constraints, Reddy’s final dissertation on the complexity and politics behind Mexico’s system offers valuable insight into how early alert technology can be used to prevent disaster — as well as what obstacles may present themselves along the way. 

“Although SASMEX is in schools and government offices, integrated into the subway systems, broadcast on some TV and radio stations, on state-owned loudspeakers, in some commercial spaces and increasingly available via personal smartphone apps, few have heard of it,” she explains. “Many who have don't trust it despite its effectiveness, or can't tell the difference between this advance alert and other, less effective alarms that go off when earthquakes are actually shaking. Those are very different kinds of things, and they should mean very different kinds of safety-oriented actions.” 

The quality and timeliness of her dissertation research has caught the attention of multiple foundations, earning Reddy more than $30,000 in fellowships, including a UC Mexus Fellowship Award in the amount of $12,000 and a National Science Foundation Fellowship Award for $15,120, to be paid through November 2015 and December 2015 respectively.

After completing her observations and conducting interviews and surveys throughout Mexico City, Reddy used her findings to examine the complex relationship between science, technology, and government, focusing on what she calls Mexico’s seismic politics. She ultimately found that public safety in Mexico is more often approached from a technical perspective, and that the background political and social work that scientists and engineers conduct to make this technical work relevant is not being highlighted as an essential part of disaster prevention. Reddy believes that the “social part” of technical labor has serious implications in terms of how policymakers and ordinary people understand and use — or fail to use — this system.

“SASMEX is, technically speaking, a great tool and only getting better as its scope grows,” Reddy explains. “In the past few years, the size of its network has expanded … [and] the collection of sensory field stations now spans much of the center and southern parts of the nation, which means the system has a radically increased ability to register earthquakes and send out alerts. It’s still growing. However, lack of uptake is troubling.”

Reddy hopes her dissertation will be the start of further research on the subject so that the system will be more widely used and more lives saved. As she continues her own studies, she will work to encourage practical approaches to these kinds of advanced technological tools. She is expected to complete her graduate program by June 2016.

-Bria Balliet, Social Sciences Communications