Cell phone becomes new town crier

Universities and cities are seeing how these staples of 21st century society can be turned into tools for keeping people informed and protected.

Universities and some cities are starting to recognize cell phones as efficient tools for protecting and connecting students and citizens.

More than 233 million people in the U.S. subscribe to a cell phone service, and many of those people view their cell phones as the one item they do not leave the house without. University officials and community leaders are just now starting to see how these staples of 21st century society can be turned into tools to keep citizens and students better informed about their community and better protected from harm.

"Our vision is to open the cellular phone network up so that communities can better connect with people living in those areas," said Rodger Desai, president and CEO of Rave Wireless, a company that develops software applications for universities to send cell phone communications to students. "Colleges are really a microcosm of the world. This technology can be used in any community to inform people of emergencies or just provide local updates."

The tragedy this week at Virginia Tech, where 33 students and professors lost their lives in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, has highlighted how something as simple as a text message alert could have potentially saved lives.

Officials at the school have been criticized in the aftermath of the tragedy for not alerting students of the situation sooner. Students have reported they did not receive e-mails regarding the situation on campus until two hours after the first shooting in one of the dormitories.

Alerts could save lives
Much of the delay in alerting students likely falls in the hands of authorities, who were assessing the situation on campus, and not the technology itself. But some experts say that e-mail is not the best form of communication for such critical alerts. They suggest SMS text messaging as a more effective way of alerting students.

"Text messaging alerts would have been an excellent way to inform students on the Virginia Tech campus that there was a security issue," said Alison Kiss, program director for Security on Campus, a not-for-profit group that promotes collegiate security. "Virtually every college student today has a cell phone with them at all times. It's just a much more effective way of communicating an urgent message than leaving it to e-mail, which people may not check all the time."

Several companies, such as E2Campus and Rave Wireless, offer text messaging solutions that colleges can use to send out mass SMS alerts. Of the 3,000 universities and colleges in the United States, 70 of them are already using Rave's solution, including University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., and Park University in Parkville, Mo., Desai said.

Earlier in the year, Virginia Tech officials had considered deploying an emergency cell phone text-messaging system after an accused murderer was found running loose on the campus, according to news reports. But the school has not deployed such an alert system.

According to a recent study from Forrester Research, roughly 35 percent of the entire mobile phone subscriber population in the U.S. has used text messaging, a seemingly simple and cheap way to communicate important information to students on campus or even people within communities. Westchester County in New York already sends residents text message alerts, in addition to e-mails, in cases of emergency.

Beyond text messaging
But text message alerts are only one cell phone application that universities and communities can exploit to keep students and residents informed. Rave Wireless also sells a comprehensive solution called Rave Guardian that combines, text message alerts and GPS tracking services to help turn students' cell phones into personal alarm devices that can be used in a crisis.

Students can opt-in to a service with their school to give campus security the ability to locate them in the event of an emergency through a GPS-enabled handset, which receives satellite signals to pinpoint location. Since the FCC now requires all mobile operators to provide location information for E911 emergency purposes, most new phones sold in the U.S. already have this capability built in.

Rave has also built software that can be integrated into some cell phones that allows students on campuses where the Rave Guardian system is deployed to press a panic button that connects them directly to campus security if they feel they are in danger. Students can even send photos directly to campus security when they hit the panic button.

They can also use a timer feature that students can set in situations where they might be afraid. For example, a student can turn on the timer when walking through a remote or secluded area, and if the timer goes off before the student can deactivate it, campus security is contacted and emergency officers are dispatched. This feature is useful in cases where a student is attacked or incapacitated and is unable to push a panic button for help.

In either case when campus security is alerted, a student profile pops up on the dispatcher's desktop, complete with a map of where the student is located. Students include information on their profile, such as where they live and if they have any special medical needs.

Putting cell phones to work
Montclair State University was one of the first universities in the country to implement the comprehensive Rave Wireless service. For the past two years all incoming freshman have been required to purchase a handset and wireless service through the university. The university has worked closely with Sprint Nextel to improve cellular coverage on campus. It has also worked with Rave Wireless to develop a suite of applications.

When the school, which has roughly 12,000 undergraduates, polled students about what kinds of services they would find useful, text messaging alerts and safety features like the GPS-enabled tracking were among the top two or three.

But Montclair also had a much larger vision for how to use cell phones. The school, located in a suburb of New York City, caters largely to commuters. And cell phones seemed like an ideal way for the university to remain connected to students when they were off campus, said Edward Chapel, vice president for information technology at the university.

"The greatest challenge for us was engaging the students when they drove off campus," he said. "We wanted to be able to reach out to students wherever they were to keep them connected to the university. And since 98 percent of the students already had cell phones, it seemed like a logical choice to use that technology."

In addition to safety and security alerts, the university uses the alert system to keep students informed about events on campus. Students can choose which SMS alerts or RSS feeds they want to sign up for, such as messages about sporting events or for individual classes. They can also create their own social-networking groups to inform other classmates of events or meetings.

Montclair also uses the GPS tracking feature to keep students updated about its transportation services. Shuttle buses on campus are outfitted with GPS receivers, and students can track where buses are directly from their handsets.

Rave Wireless today sells its software and services only to colleges and universities. But the company has also been contacted by representatives from several cities interested in use the text alert and Rave Guardian applications in their communities.

Newark, N.J., for example, has expressed interest in using the GPS tracking service so that residents can use the public bus system more efficiently. City officials are also interested in using the GPS alert applications to connect residents to police faster, Desai said.

He added that the alert features could easily be implemented in any community and could have been hugely helpful during such crises as Hurricane Katrina or during and after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington, D.C., to help keep people informed of what was happening. During the aftermath of these tragedies, cell phone networks were jammed with phone calls, but text messages were still able to get through the network.

This is the main reason why the Department of Homeland Security is looking at including text messaging as part of a new digital alert system that could go into effect later this year.

"Any community could use text message alerts or GPS technology," Desai said. "Since most of the infrastructure is with the mobile operators, it's really not expensive to implement either."

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