Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Twitter as Alert System?

Yesterday's tragedy at Virginia Tech underlined the importance of sending out warnings regarding dangerous situations as quickly as possible and through as many channels as possible.

Listening to the news last night, it sounded like the VT administration used every channel of communication at their disposal: the campus website, mass e-mails, broadcast phone messages to all campus phones, and a siren system. The university I work at (the University of Maryland) also has all of those means of getting the word out.

The one communication channel that wasn't mentioned, however, was cell phones. That's not surprising: I suspect few universities specifically collect cell phone numbers from their students, and most students would probably be hesitant to give their cell number to the university out of privacy concerns.

But in light of yesterday's events, maybe universities should rethink that issue. Messages sent to land-line phones and e-mail addresses are only received if the recipient is at their phone or is actively checking e-mail. A message sent to a cell phone, which folks usually carry with them, has a much better chance of getting the recipient's attention immediately, even if they are walking between classes. While not every student owns a cell phone, those that did and received the message could spread the word to the people around them, getting the word out much faster.

So let's assume universities offered to send emergency messages (and only emergency messages) to students who provided a cell phone number to contact: how would the university broadcast an alert to those phones?

A long-term solution would be to put a SMS messaging system in place at the university designed specifically for this purpose (universities like mine that run ColdFusion 7, for example, could build an application using the SMS Gateway service provided by the ColdFusion server).

A short-term solution could be Twitter. Twitter is a social networking tool where you can receive short messages from friends via a web page, IM, or via SMS.

A university could set up a Twitter account to use to send out emergency messages, then instruct students to get a Twitter account (which is free) and "follow" the university Twitter account. The students can then control whether they receive updates from the university Twitter account via their phone or not.

Granted, this is not what Twitter was designed for, but I think it could serve as a stop-gap measure for getting warnings out until a more robust system is put in place.

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