Oct. 9, 2007
By Sally Linder
A test run of the university's emergency text messaging system in late September passed muster. As a result, the university will continue to develop text messaging as an official emergency notification channel for students, and work will begin soon to extend the service to faculty and staff.
"The test went smoothly, as a whole. We found nothing in our infrastructure that would make us uncomfortable using text messaging for emergency alerts," said Duane Starkey, director of information technology business services and special projects.
The Office of Information Technology developed the proof-of-concept test in conjunction with the Critical Incident Response Team. OIT and CIRT wanted to make certain that Ohio University's internal software and procedures were sound and that cell phone providers were set to handle a spate of calls at once.
CIRT asked students at Precollege and during the first few weeks of the quarter to sign up for the test. To participate, each person had to provide their number and mobile-phone company.
On test day, OIT sent a message to enrollees asking them to reply with the time that the message arrived and when it was read.
The system sent out the text messages -- 2,769 in all -- within a minute or two of 1:34 p.m., and 1,154 test participants voluntarily reported back with results. Of those, nearly 80 percent replied that they had received the text message within six minutes. By 2:11 p.m., 90 percent of respondents had received the message. The remaining 10 percent said their message came later.
"That most likely was due to 'throttling,' which means the provider limits the number of incoming messages to avoid slowing their system down," Starkey said. "We will contact the companies to see if there is a way to avoid that in the future."
OIT got 175 "undeliverable" bounces for reasons ranging from users having invalid phone numbers or not being text-messaging subscribers to inaccurate network addresses for service providers and other network errors that could have a number of causes.
About 49 other participants reported not getting the message, even though the university did not receive bounces for them. In those cases, the providers may have failed to generate bounces, or the recipients could have deleted the messages unintentionally. OIT plans to contact the individuals with those numbers to see about resolving the issues.
"These are minor and largely fixable problems," Starkey said. "We'll do some additional data analysis and testing, but overall, we're satisfied with how things went."
Responses from members of the test group indicate they also were satisfied. Replies included such comments as "thanks," "keep up the good work" or "I appreciate the university's attention to safety." There have been no negative responses as of this report.
Starkey emphasized that test conditions are far more forgiving than a real emergency. "During an emergency, all forms of communication can become unreliable," Starkey said. "Towers could be knocked out of service, or systems could overload when everyone begins calling friends, family and roommates all at once."
Even when a system works perfectly, there's still the human factor. If people aren't expecting an emergency message, they may not be so quick to open it up and may even delete the notification, thinking it's spam. In other cases, individuals might not even realize they have a message. As one test participant pointed out, many professors have a phones-off policy in class.
After working out the few glitches in the system, next steps include developing a program to include faculty and staff who want text message alerts.
"We started with students because they are both the largest group on campus and the most difficult to reach on short notice," says Chief Information Officer Brice Bible. "In general, they are also already very comfortable with text messaging technologies."
According to Bible, OIT and CIRT will schedule additional messages in the future, not only to refine the process but also so that recipients are accustomed to receiving alerts.
"We want to be as confident as we can that our students, faculty and staff will receive rapid notification in case of an emergency event," Bible said.