Text messaging goes beyond emergencies

One California student started a program to text the troops in Iraq.

by Devin Henry

The University’s new TXT-U service is only five days old, but has already joined the ranks of a growing number of text messaging uses.

Besides sending normal text messages, new uses for cell phone texting include mobile alerts and sending company advertisements, Loren Terveen, associate professor of computer science and engineering, said.

Terveen said a texting program he worked on even sends reminder messages to users when they approach certain places, such as sending a grocery list when a user approaches a grocery store.

“It’s a way of automating something you can do yourself, but making it very simple,” Terveen said.

Another program, called Dodgeball, allows users to send mass text messages to friends telling them when they go to a bar or a club, Terveen said.

“I think it illustrates a small layer of automation on top of basic text messaging,” Terveen said, “and shows how you can do some more sophisticated kinds of alerts without having to go to all the trouble yourself.”

Student activists around the country are also using text messages to spread their messages.

Shauna Fleming, a first-year student at Chapman University in California, started amillionthanks.org in 2004 to promote sending letters to U.S. troops serving overseas. This Thanksgiving, the Web site is also asking people to send text messages to the troops.

“We decided that because text messaging is so huge these days, that we would try and get one million text messages to the troops the week of Thanksgiving,” she said.

Fleming doesn’t know if she’ll reach her goal until after the holiday.

“Text messaging is just a fast, easy way of communication,” Fleming said. “For people to know that they’re being in contact with our troops who are fighting for us is something that really attracts people to want to do it.”

Terveen said people look to new technologies when tragedies such as the shootings at Virginia Tech take place.

“When something so terrible and significant happens,” Terveen said, “it really makes people examine their procedures and look for new ways that they can avoid these problems and better ways to keep students informed to what’s going on.”

University sociology and psychology student Angie Mulcahy – a frequent texter – said she thinks the University’s new emergency texting program is good, “as long as it’s in conjunction with other methods,” she said. “I don’t think it’s 100 percent reliable.”

The University is not the first Big Ten school to use a text messaging alert system. Penn State University added a similar system, called PSUTXT, in August 2006, assistant director of public information for Penn State Annemarie Mountz said.

“We were looking for a way to reach students with information that they needed to know in a timely manner, in a way that they like to receive information,” she said. “Since they like to text, that’s a good way.”

During one snow storm this past winter, the only reliable sources for students and staff for correct closure information was the PSUTXT program and the school Web site, Mountz said.

On the first day of classes at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the school’s text messaging alert system got its first use, director of Web communications at the university Malinda Miller-Huey said.

When a stabbing took place, the school also issued a text message alert, Miller-Huey said.

“It’s the easiest, most immediate way to get a hold of students,” she said of the text message system. “If there’s a campus closure, people probably aren’t at the computer labs; they’re out and about, and it’s a much easier way to reach them.”

Despite the new lines of communication text messaging provides, Mountz said it needs to be taken in stride.

“What text messaging can do as part of a communications plan is if something terrible does happen, it can let people know and potentially help keep the situation from getting worse,” she said. “But it’s not going to stop a tragedy from happening. It doesn’t stop bullets.”