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April 18, 2007

Protecting campuses using cell phone technology

First, it's proper to acknowledge the tragedy that occurred at Virgina Tech, and to hope that those affected will find the strength to persevere. The intent of this post is to make everyone more aware of a possible solution that could save lives as well as promote communication on campuses.  Hokies forever!


Tech looks to tap into text messaging - Roanoke.com

This online article from The Roanoke Times (Sept. '06), talks about interest in a text messaging alert system by Virginia Tech.

BLACKSBURG -- When Virginia Tech wanted to alert students to developments in a recent campus manhunt for an accused double murderer it relied on e-mail, the Web and messages sent to dorm phones. One method that was not available: sending text messages to cellphones. That could change.

University officials are considering following the lead of Penn State University and other schools that use text messaging to stay in contact with students for whom even e-mail is becoming passe.

Penn State and other academic institutions have implemented such a system provided by e2Campus of Leesburg, Virginia.

Rave Wireless based in NYC is another company that offers a similar system, but theirs also "enables college police departments to monitor the locations of students, both on and off campus." They have a blog where they describe the use of cell phones in high schools, colleges and universities for mobile communication for campus life and participatory learning.

Maybe this quote from William Gibson is apropos: "The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed."

Another thought: I've heard reports that the cell carriers were overwhelmed on the Virginia Tech campus. I wonder how these systems will handle this increased voice and data demand, especially during an evolving emergency?

Update: This morning's WSJ online publishes "Texting When There's Trouble: state-of-the-art systems can blast mass warnings to cellphones and PCs":

The ubiquity of relatively new technologies allows electronic alerts to reach more people faster than ever before. In the aftermath of several recent disasters -- including the tsunami in South Asia, Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, and the terrorist attacks in New York, London and Madrid -- a growing number of governments, communities, school systems and universities have begun using automated electronic-alert systems that can send voice, email or text messages to residents and students, in addition to traditional broadcast emergency messages. The services mean that people no longer need to be listening to radio, watching TV, logged on to their email or near a home phone to be warned of trouble.

They do mention Virginia Tech:

At Virginia Tech, emergency communications on Monday included email but not cellphone text messages. Amid questions about whether Virginia Tech administrators should have more quickly closed campus and canceled classes, what is clear is that the university lacks any means of immediately alerting its roughly 33,000 students, faculty and staff to an emergency.

This is a blog post from Rave Wireless in reaction to the shooting and killing of a prison escapee at Virginia Tech last August, emphasizing the need for an SMS alert system:

[H]ere are a few facts to consider:

    • More than 90% of students carry mobile phones
    • Students do not check their school email as often as many adults would like to assume
    • Students often do not set up or check the voicemail provided on their dorm landlines

As the WSJ article cited above points out, these SMS alert systems are not expensive, and some pilot programs are supported by advertising. But, I don't see how an emergency system could be supported by advertising, and I hope that this wouldn't promote SMS spam, especially since users would have to pay per message depending upon their data plan.

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