A Look at the New “Nerv” Disaster App
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Japan’s First Evangelion-Themed Disaster App
When typhoon Faxai hit greater Tokyo in the early hours of September 9, it caused fatalities in Tokyo and blew over power pylons in Chiba, resulting in widespread power outages in the prefecture. In the wake of Faxai’s devastation, a free smart phone app released a few days earlier on September 1—Disaster Prevention Day in Japan—has been attracting attention.
Meet the Nerv Disaster App. The app’s name and design are inspired by NERV, a fictional paramilitary organization that appears in the Neon Genesis Evangelion series. Fans of the anime are sure to do a double take!
The design is not the only thing that makes Nerv special. The app receives information directly from Japan’s Meteorological Agency, including information on atmospheric conditions, typhoons, rain, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, as well as notifications from J-Alert (an early warning system for other threats), which it relays faster than almost any other service. Nerv users can also browse events that occurred in the last 72 hours, ordered chronologically, and receive warnings of earthquakes and tsunamis. For users who are blind or have reading difficulties, the app can also be set to speak notifications.
みなさま、大変お待たせいたしました。— 特務機関NERV (@UN_NERV)
The official tweet announcing the release of the Nerv disaster app (https://nerv.app/). As of the date of publication, the app is available on iOS; Android users will have to wait a little longer.
The app’s development was overseen by Ishimori Daiki, CEO of the IT security firm Gehirn. A big Evangelion fan, Ishimori even named his company after a fictional organization that features in the series. As the operator of a Nerv-themed account (@UN_NERV) on Twitter since 2010, Ishimori has been tweeting information on natural disasters for almost a decade. In fact, as of September 2019, the account had tweeted a total of 240,000 times and boasted 770,000 followers. But just why did someone with his background decide to use a smartphone app to encourage people to prepare for disasters? Ishimori told us about the app’s connection to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and how it manages to be one of the fastest services of its kind.
A Tsunami Inspires Development
When asked what inspired him to use the Nerv account to disseminate information on natural disasters on Twitter, Ishimori says that while he has owned the account since 2010, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami was his main motivation for sharing information. He hails from Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, and his family home was damaged in the disaster. With hardly any accounts tweeting disaster information at the time, Ishimori decided he could help people by disseminating information over the Internet, to complement conventional channels.
When Japan was best by power shortages immediately after the earthquake, Ishimori used his account to tweet pleas to conserve electricity, in what he dubbed “Operation Yashima”—another Evangelion reference. Soon afterward, he started tweeting emergency earthquake alerts as well. He says that he never dreamed that the service would turn into what it is today.
When asked why he decided to release an app, rather than restricting himself to Twitter, Ishimori says that he felt that with an app he would be able to give users the information they needed immediately. “While tweets are limited to 140 characters, an app lets you display maps, play audio, and otherwise share information in new ways,” he explains.
The ability to use push notifications was also significant. While Twitter does offers push notifications, when information is retweeted, the most important details tend to get shunted to the bottom of the thread. Ishimori felt that an app would be a better way of disseminating information, because it would allow the sending of bulletins containing all necessary information on the user’s current location and designated regions.
Lag Reduced to Three Seconds
Ishimori explained that while Nerv is not the only app that relays information from the Meteorological Agency, very few apps offer spoken notifications or maps. Nerv can be configured to automatically read out information on earthquakes and other disasters, doing so with a time lag measured in just seconds. In other words, the app provides the user with information within seconds of booting up. Another advantage of the app is the way the display can be adjusted for colorblind users. Ishimori is himself colorblind, and cannot differentiate red from green. He says that he finds the color-coded maps used by other disaster information services hard to read. Nerv, however, can be set to transform green to blue if necessary.
We asked Ishimori how Nerv disseminates information, and what he means by his claim that the app is one of Japan’s fastest. He explains that the app receives data via a dedicated line to the Japan Meteorological Business Support Center. This data is encoded in the Center’s own format, but Gehirn has developed a program that converts and processes the data so that it can be disseminated immediately. Because of this, Nerv is faster than even the Meteorological Agency’s own website, and a whole 25 minutes faster than one major competitor. For example, when the Meteorological Agency detects a seismic wave, Nerv will notify users in no longer than 20 seconds and as little as a few seconds. This includes the time taken to improve the accuracy of the reading. For earthquake warnings and other types of notifications where time is of the essence, the lag is about three seconds.
When we asked Ishimori about the challenges he faced developing the app and what features he particularly wanted to include, he said that he wanted to be sure that the app could handle large volumes of traffic. During natural disasters, apps of this type experience a spike in traffic, so they are pointless if they cannot be used in peak conditions. Ishimori explained that Nerv’s notifications are cloud-based, meaning that the app will never go down as long as the cloud service stays running on the back end.
The process leading up till the release of the app has been full of challenges. Ishimori notes that his team first looked into the possibility of releasing an app in September 2018, and spent about a year deciding on the layout and audio messages. Gehirn decided to record its own automated voice messages, which involved having an actor read out 1,600 words and place names. The development team that produced the source code for the app was often forced to go without sleep, reveals Ishimori.
Multilingual Version on the Horizon
When asked what future developments we can expect from the app and whether any updates are planned, Ishimori says that his company planning to improve usability for the blind and vision impaired. (While the iPhone does have a function called “VoiceOver” that reads out on-screen messages when the user touches them, touching messages displayed on Nerv with VoiceOver enabled sometimes just makes the phone say “icon.”) Gehirn also plans to add warnings for lightning and volcanic ash, and information on river levels and flooding. Ishimori says that support for other languages will also be added, to enable non-Japanese users to use the app too. Plans are to start with English and Chinese.
When asked about reception to the app, Ishimori expresses his appreciation to everyone who uses the app and who helped develop the app, which has now been downloaded 100,000 times. He takes the view that by pressing “download”, those 100,000 people put their faith in Nerv to keep them safe during a natural disaster, and said that he therefore feels an enormous sense of responsibility to help people in emergencies. He says that he also wants to contribute to disaster literacy, so that members of the public are better able to make their own decisions when the time comes.
As of September 2019, Nerv is only available for iOS, so Android users will have to wait a little longer to experience its features.
In one well-known scene from Neon Genesis Evangelion, the protagonist Ikari Shinji rouses himself by telling himself that he can’t run from adversity. During natural disasters, however, not running from adversity often means risking your life. We suggest that readers download Nerv to give themselves one more way to stay informed about natural disasters.
(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on September 12, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)
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