What the data might reveal

The Christian Science Monitor carries a provocatively titled article today: “How India’s nuclear secrecy hampers earthquake detection.”  The article investigates India’s refusal to share real-time seismic data on the grounds that it could reveal information about underground nuclear testing:

In the wake of the recent earthquake that devastated Kashmir, some Indian officials are reevaluating the government’s refusal to share real-time online seismology data with the international community.

India has balked at putting seismic data online because it could provide evidence of underground nuclear testing. The country’s refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty also excludes it from exchanging data with the International Monitoring System, a global network of seismological sensors operated by treaty signatories.

Seismologists can more rapidly and accurately pinpoint the location and power of an earthquake when real-time data can be triangulated against a wide network of sensors. A delay of even seconds in reporting data induces errors in the exact location and could set back relief efforts in their crucial early stages, prompting some scientists here to argue against data hoarding.

Such are the consequences of brinkmanship.  We can’t let the other guy know what the yield of our newest, baddest weapon is no matter what.

As for the value of sharing seismic data in the event of a future earthquake, some decision-makers in Delhi have yet to get the message. “Share data? What for?” asked an official from the Ministry of Science, sounding nonplussed when questioned about India’s policy to not make real-time data available via broadband.

“Open-data sharing in seismology over the past century … has been of enormous importance in reporting of earthquakes and studies of global and regional earthquakes,” says Shane Ingate, director of operations at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) in Washington, the world’s repository for data from most seismic networks around the globe. “It is regrettable that India … imposes restriction on the open and rapid access of these important data.”

Emerging technologies are making it possible to detect blasts and blast yields even without rigorous seismic data, so it doesn’t make much sense for India to maintain this policy, especially when releasing that data could help save lives.

21 thoughts on “What the data might reveal

  1. While I agree with the general idea of sharing seismic data to save lives, I would add that this article mentions only one side of the story. What about the other side – that of Pakistan’s refusal to share seismic data?

    Or, is it that as usual “demands” are being made by vested interests that India “should” unilaterally do whatever is necessary in the “larger” interests of everybody concerned?

    No – thanks.

    M. Nam

  2. How about the American refusal to provide India access to supercomputers? No supercomputers, no signing of Shitty-Bitty (CTBT).

  3. A delay of even seconds in reporting data induces errors in the exact location and could set back relief efforts in their crucial early stages, prompting some scientists here to argue against data hoarding.

    The above statement is attempting to mask a shortcoming in the system used for triangulating the epicenter. The problem with triangulating is not the delay (however “small”), but the non-determinism in the delay (resulting in larger error margins.)

    It’s rather silly to claim that data that is deterministically delayed is useless–rather the systems used for processing the data are likely not designed for handling delayed data from some (but not all) sensors.

  4. Don’t get me started on this……Both India and Pakistan are in dark ages in their mind set when it comes to sharing data, and knowing that some of the data in today’s day and age is not sensitive anymore.

    I have dealt with this persoanlly, and will so in coming future again. Tsunami/ earthquake research is useless unless data is shared in real time.

  5. Kush writes: Both India and Pakistan are in dark ages in their mind set when it comes to sharing data

    And China? China has only a bi-lateral arrangement with the US when it comes to sharing seismic data – it does not share it with India.

    If India and Pakistan have to agree on sharing data, either it must be a bilateral agreement, or China must open up.

    M. Nam

  6. Unfortunately I have to agree with most of the comments so far.

    I’m all about sharing data, open source and all that good stuff, but it’s gotta be evenly done all over.

    On a tangential note, was I the only one who was cringing at Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy’s recent NYT editorial on how the genome of the 1918 Flu virus should not have been made public coz of terrorist dangers? And those guys are supposed to be on the cutting edge of science????

  7. Death caused by

    Bhuj earthquake (2001): ~20,000 Tsunami in India (2004): ~15,000 and worldwide ~200,000 Kashmir earthquake (2005): > 38,000

    The human loss by wars between India and Pakistan (please do not include Bangladesh casualities) do not even come close.

    For reason, I might be going to Pakistan soon (also I deal with my Indian brothers on a very regular basis) and do not want to leave a trail of web comments to put them in a tight spot, please trust me that two countries which are still in 60s frame of mind in the wrold are India and Pakistan.

    All this is give and take, China will open up if its gets something in return. China does share data with other countries quite openly.

    All talk about disaster management, being frontiers of science and technology, and “India Shining” is blah, blah, blah if one does not learn to share information, and be forward looking. I respect security concerns but they change with time and technology. You have to be smart about it and look carefully – cost and benefit.

    Bottom line, you can not have advance warning system (for tsunami and Himalayn earthquakes), if you do not share data in real time. Think about it.

    Same holds for AIDS epidemic data, etc.

  8. “Why can’t I use Bangladesh statistics again?”

    Because you are going to use a genocide*/ civil war killing figures between West Pakistan and then East Pakistan to justify that wars between India and Pakistan can be very costly in terms of death. Those human losses occured before India “formallY” got involved. That would be inaccurate.

    • = very tragic part of history but nothing to do with benefits of not sharing seismic and other scientific data openly at all.

    PS: I am shutting up.

  9. Kush Tandon writes:

    The human loss by wars between India and Pakistan do not even come close.(75,000 people)

    That’s only because conventional wars have been fought. The issue here is nuclear-testing and related secrecy. So in this context, one needs to think about potential casualities in a nuclear war. This is in millions, if not tens of millions. Earthquakes and tsunamis seem like a church picnic in comparison.

    All this is give and take, China will open up if its gets something in return. China does share data with other countries quite openly.

    Riiight. I’ll believe it when I see it. China does not even share data related to issues in that dam(can’t recall the name) which endangers Himchal Pradesh in India.

    >>if one does not learn to share information, and be forward looking.

    No country on earth shares sensitive information. Information is given on a need-to-know basis when there is no threat to the giver of the information. And it is extremely condescending to brand someone disagreeing with an idea as though they are not forward looking. You will be successful in your mission(and I wish you success) only when you can convince both countries of the potential advantages in sharing information. The devil is in the details – be prepared to discuss it. Who will do the monitoring on both sides? What if a third party asks for this information? What happens if war/hostilities break out(strong possibility)?

    Good intentions is one thing – even the UN has good intentions. Execution is another matter.

    M. Nam

  10. “No country on earth shares sensitive information.”

    Sure, I respect the right to withhold sensitive infromation. However, you have to smart enough to know what is sensitive information in this day and age. A sensitive information in 1960s is easily googleable (or mundane) in 2000s. Wasting time on hoarding everything is not smart.

    Also, can you please give me an actual one instance of nuclear war – other than sounding Dr. Strangelove. Even gravity and magnetic (other geophysical datasets) which can help in ballistic missile trajectory is an outdated way of thinking with today’s satellites and their resolution.

    To detect an undergorund nuclear test, you need incredibly coarse dataset from Vienna and basic analysis – ask any earth scientist. Any seismologist will tell you that data secrecy is mostly due to a very old “cold war” frame of mind, and nobody dares to challenge it, partly why bother. But October 8th earthquake is a wake up call.

    Every country which is serious about science and technology shares data in various fields – seismology, engineering, medicine, and does only selective withholding.

    I am very open to discussion, just not on web. Promise, no more comments. Real time sharing will be the way rest of the world does – part honor system, part monitoring, and data is given to worldwide respositories. They already exists (IRIS), and every country except India and Pakistan uses them [Please read the CSM article].

  11. Kush,

    I’m not giving you a tough time – I admire people like yourself who go out of their way to do something good, unlike the rest of us who just talk.

    Real time sharing will be the way rest of the world does – part honor system, part monitoring, and data is given to worldwide respositories. They already exists (IRIS), and every country except India and Pakistan uses them

    Agreed. But isn’t Indo-Pak a unique case?

    Name two countries in the world that have fought three wars, one major skirmish and still trust one another.

    Name two border countries in the world where one is a democracy and the other is a military/islamist dictatorship and share seismic data.

    Name two countries in the world where one has continued bred terrorists to bleed the other by a thousand cuts – and share still sensitive information.

    Name two countries in the world where one openly taunts the other in world forums and calls for the democratic country’s breakup.

    One must look at every situation in the whole context. You may convince Pakistan since it is a dictatorship. But no political party in India will incur the opposition and voters’ wrath when it comes to sharing information with a country that comes as close to the textbook definition of an enemy as it gets.

    M. Nam

  12. MoorNam,

    I understand your concern and have empathy for. I do agree that India and Pakistan are special case. Since I actively work with Indians in India (I myself carry an Indian passport).

    Hopefully, I’ll be working with Pakistani soon, I have no intention to berate and belittle any of them in public.

    The data sharing in seismology will be through a third party, the worldwide repository, like IRIS with universal safegaurds and rules that apply to others. IRIS has nothing to do with CTBT. They are independent of each other. Same for tsunami monitoring and medicine – all other fields.

    Opening up of data has some real hope in India – because Indian scientists in India do want it but it is the matter of “what battles are worth fighting for, and why put your neck out”.

    We have enough “whys” nows.

    Are you happy with “status quo”?

  13. I think this article also has another angle to it. The whole issue could be used for ulterior motives by the US when November comes and it is time for Congress to vote on the nuclear technology pact that India and US agreed upon.

    Yes, data should be shared….but that is in an ideal world. India definitely has reservations when it comes to putting sensitive data in the public domain. But then with a terrorist-supporting dictatorship on the west and communist despots in the north, what do you expect.

  14. Well I am not sure on the technical validity of the article… Is the computation done on data streams coming from multiple sources on an IP encapsulated data? Then the delay of seconds is to be expected from time to time unless they (who ever is monitoring all the data) want to setup dedicated circuits. As Arzan points out this article most likely has other motives. now if it concerns them that much they are free to setup to setup sensors in xinkiang tibet aksai chin afghanistan tajikistan and do what ever they feel like with the data. It is upto the indians to determine when and what data they should share with any one.

  15. The human loss by wars between India and Pakistan (please do not include Bangladesh casualities) do not even come close.

    Well officialy there wasnt a declaration of the war in many acts of violence between the 2 countries. I’d consider partition and the prepartition riots as a quasi civil war atleast.

  16. Again, for the last time.

    The problem with not sharing data is threefold:

    Reason I: You cannot make any decisions in real time accurately. Sure, USGS website puts up the magnitude of an earthquake within 5-10 minutes of the event and Harvard within 20-30 minutes, a fairly accurate magnitude and location. India and Pakistan are outside the loop, other than they can access the data through website like you and me or anyone else. V.IMP: The accuracy of detection depends on the proximity of seismometers near the earthquake events. Examples, Southern California and Japan – the denser the network talking to each other the better.

    Isolated seismometers run by India and Pakistan are practically useless, other than publishing papers 3 years later in a journal. They have no “societal, real time value”.

    Yes, there are dense array of seismometers all over the world on every continent and ocean bottoms (you name the place, they are there), and they share the data in real time through IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology). That is why the security mindset of India and Pakistan is tad quiant.

    Reson II: The second one is very serious omission. India and Pakistan can never think of making an advance warning system for tsunami and earthquake unless they share the data in real time for triangulation. Say, you live in Delhi, and there is an earthquake in Kathmandu, to have red-lights flashing up in lifeline buildings within less than a minute, you need very tightly triangulated and meshed on a local and regional basis. The same holds for tsunami warning. Even Mexico City has one similar because of devasting earthquake in early nineties.

    You cannot do detailed local seismic analysis in real time required for first responders without sharing data. It cannot be done in isolation.

    Reason III: You can never even make realistic building codes, unless you have rigorous shake maps and strong motion data (sorry for jargons, please google). All this needs that one is cooperating and tied to real world in real time.

    A seismograph is like a clock recording distrubance which needs to be calibrated to other clocks. My wristwatch on its own is practically useless if I do not constantly check time with others in the world and duly make time corrections (Day time savings, etc).

    I am done. Also, if you include earthquakes from 1947 onwards, it will be more 100,000 deaths (1993 Latur earthquake was 22,000).

    It is not only eartthquakes or tsunami – the AIDS data is hardly shared by India and Pakistan (Please correct me if that has changed).

  17. Guys, please check SCEC (Southern California Earthquake Center) webpage – they have lot of write up on things, you would like to know – far better researched and written, than I can on short order.

    Make up your mind from your air-conditioned homes in US of A, that you want millions of Indian (fellow desi) be put in harms way because of some outdated notions of security and pan-nationalism. India will never be USA or Japan in terms of earthquake mitigation but not even thinking fresh in event of a tragedy is a high crime.

    A seismometer has nothing to do with a nuclear testing or defense things like that – it is just it is clock sitting next to your test site recording all your disturbances.

  18. This data sharing stuff is a scam in this context, given that to the best of my knowledge, no one can predict the occurence of an earthquake with any accuracy as to its timing or intensity. So I don’t see how the CSM article’s basic premise is even valid. Additionally, the US does control data access while expecting other countries to release data, so there is not much reciprocity in this regard.

    Furthermore, it is interesting to see the kind of press that India has been getting in the handling of the earthquake’s aftermath, and the corresponding lack of criticism of Pakistan’s treatment of the victims.

  19. Nationalism is a good reason to protect any potential covert or overt nuclear tests that may create siesmic ripples.
    BTW no one to my knowledge predicted the parkfield that happened in late september this year. San Andreas fault would be a siesmologists wet dream in terms of sensors.

    Regarding the rant on the inhabitants of centalized AC homes in US not knowing of caring about india. That idea is what is outtdated. Its similar to gaddar indian leaving india and causing brain drain kind of idea that was in vouge during Indira Gandhi era. FYI i dont have an AC in my home in US.
    I am a penny pincher and a passive environmentalist.

  20. TSUNAMIS’ AFTERMATH / Warning signals, but no warnings : Early data on Asian quake went unnoticed in Vienna

    But the data streaming into the computers of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization served no purpose Sunday.

    The 300 staff are on vacation until Jan. 4. The organization itself is still nothing more than a nascent group of seismic experts and bureaucrats who await signature or ratification on the test ban treaty from 11 more countries before they can officially act.


    The CTBTO Preparatory Commission: Nine Years of Blatant Fraud

    ‘The PTS and the Tsunami Tragedy‘

    CTBTO commits mass murder: Warning system could have spared tsunami victims


    [CTBTO] A new $30 million UN early tsunami-warning system? They already have one!


    [CTBTO] Nobody home at international arms control organization


    [CTBTO] Tsunami warnings, UN style


    A-bomb system can warn of tsunami

    Jeffrey Hanson and Roger Bowman from the Science Applications International Corporation (Saic) in San Diego have now analysed the signals coming from the hydroacoustic detectors, or hydrophones.


    India seeks to keep Pak out to Global seismographic network

    The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to which India is not a signatory depends on the IRIS data to determine the nuclear detonations and hence Ramamurthy’s daunting task would be to see how India can be part of IRIS without signing the treaty.