WASHINGTON — Fifteen to 90 seconds before a rocket flies into Israel, nearly 600,000 people worldwide receive the same cellphone notification: “Rockets Attack,” it reads, followed by the name of an Israeli city.
Only seconds separate the phone ping from sirens that blare in Israel whenever a rocket is launched into the country. But those few seconds are an extra cushion for Israelis who sprint to a bomb shelter to take cover.
More than 550,000 Israelis have downloaded the Red Alert phone app, says its co-creator, Ari Sprung, an Android developer for an Israeli start-up who 12 years ago was a tank commander in Israel’s army.
But the app also has become popular among Israel supporters internationally, Sprung said in a phone interview from Jerusalem. The app has been downloaded by 50,000 people outside Israel _ most of them with relatives in Israel or supporters of Israel who want to follow events there in real time.
“Through this app I get constant reminder of what it’s like to live under fire,” said Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel, director of the Chabad Jewish Center at the University of Kansas. “This app really helps me live every single day what they are living.”
Sprung said he never intended for the tool to be used by people outside Israel, and the international interest is simply a byproduct of today’s interconnected world.
“It’s not propaganda,” Sprung said. “If you download it, it’s annoying. But we had a cry from people who wanted to see what we’re going through and show solidarity. Now people can experience what we’re going through here.”
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of Arab-Israeli programs at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, said the app’s value in Israel is unchallenged.
“It definitely provides a peace of mind, and with that you can have a sense of control over the situation,” she said. “You can’t always hear the sirens.”
But it also can be an important tool to help build sympathy for Israel, she acknowledged, even if that wasn’t the intent of its developers. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, for example, demonstrated the Red Alert app’s capabilities on Sunday when his cellphone sounded as he was being interviewed on the CBS News program “Face the Nation.”
“It is capable of forging some form of solidarity in people who are already inclined toward that,” Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said. “But from what I’ve noticed, people are using it on the ground for really practical purposes.”
Sprung won’t say from where he receives the information for the Red Alert notifications, but he acknowledged that Israel’s military has publicly supported the app. He said no one pays for this development work, however.
With the sound on, Red Alert creates a pinging noise at least a dozen times throughout the day _ sometimes, one right after the other. Although it gives the user a sense of what Israelis live through, it also can annoy uninterested co-workers.
Sprung, who developed the Android version of the app, worked with Kobi Snir, a developer who initially developed Red Alert for iPhones in 2012 when Hamas last deployed rockets into Israel. The app also works on iPads. Snir hasn’t given any interviews. Asked why, Sprung said it wasn’t really his place to say.
The free app runs on two servers, Sprung said. One disseminates immediate alerts to those who have downloaded the application in Israel and another runs on a bit of a delay _ up to about a minute _ to international users.
Because of limited server space, the Android application is only available in Israel. Working around those space limitations, Sprung created accounts on the application “Yo” to notify subscribers when Hamas has sent a missile to Israel.
Although those pings simply read “Yo,” users can sign up for specific city accounts, such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, that only alert when rockets are headed to those locations. There is also a country-wide account “RedAlertIsrael” to receive a “Yo” with all Israel-bound missiles.
Working on the app outside of his full-time job, Sprung said he and Snir have been fixing kinks in the app as they find them. Though he said they have plans to unveil a new version of the app in the future, he finds it “unfortunate” the app has become so popular.
“I wish we could unpublish it one day,” Sprung said.