Cybereye | A test for text alerts

Texting, so often the realm of teenager chit-chat, has proven to be a surprisingly effective means of communication during disasters. Because of its efficient use of bandwidth, short message service texts often can get through during periods of congestion when voice calls are dropped.

With 116 million text message users in the United States, it could be an effective tool for a national alert system, although the technology doesn't appear to be there yet.

Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign demonstrated that texting can be used as a mass medium when it announced Obama's vice presidential pick Aug. 23 via a short text message to supporters who had signed up to receive the news. But it also showed text messages' limitations.

According to the Nielsen media ratings company, the message about Obama's selection was received by 2.9 million people. But according to Keynote Systems, 40 percent to 50 percent of the people who signed up to get the message might not have gotten it quickly, or at all.

This is not the first time Democrats have used cutting-edge communications in connection with a vice presidential selection. The 1844 convention that nominated James Polk was held in Baltimore just days after the completion of the first telegraph link with Washington, according to Daniel Walker Howe. In his book, 'What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848,' he writes that 'the Democratic convention used the telegraph to offer the second spot on its ticket to Martin Van Buren's friend Silas Wright; he declined via the same medium, and the party then turned to the Pennsylvania doughface George Dallas.'

A doughface was a northern politician with southern or pro-slavery sentiments. Today, Dallas probably is more readily associated with his namesake city in Texas.

More than 160 years later, the Obama campaign aggressively uses text messages at campaign events through ad hoc networks of supporters. The vice presidential announcement, although not a failure, had limited success. The technique uses Common Short Codes, abbreviated phone numbers that can be used to broadcast messages and which usually are billed at a higher rate. Keynote conducted 600 tests on the Obama campaign's short code in the week preceding the announcement.

'The results revealed inconsistent performance with extremely poor availability,' the company reported.

Although SMS messaging remains a convenience and powerful tool in emergency situations, its effectiveness as a broadcast medium during a disaster is limited. However, that will likely change as texting is adopted as a new advertising tool and the technology evolves. A nationwide text alert system could be feasible in a few years.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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