What’s wrong with the San Mateo County OES SMS alert system

Twitter Updates


San Francisco PechaKucha Night
San Francisco IxDA


San Mateo County has this fairly useful SMS service called SMCalert, but today’s message is a great example of why government agencys need to become smarter in their use of this technology:

1 of 2
SUBJ:#1855  1/2
MSG:08/30/09 8:30 am Mountain Lion sighting in creek area south of Canada Cove Mobile
(Con't) 2 of 2
Home Park.  Only one reporting pg(End)

Here are the problems I see with this message:

  1. The message has both headers and footers. This wastes precious space, and buries the important message in the middle of fluff. One or the other, but not both, and preferably neither; the messages should be short enough to not need page headers.
  2. The SUBJ: line provides meaningless info, and duplicates the header/footer information. The message number is irrelevant!
  3. The FRM: line indicates the system is using an SMTP to SMS gateway, which is an unreliable way to deliver SMS messages, and explains why:
  4. The message was sent at 08:30 am, but not delivered to my phone until 9:49. This gives the cougar almost two hours to track me down and eat me, since I have no idea where the named location is.
  5. What’s with the stupid date format? Our county is diverse, and many come from cultures that write dates in different orders, so some will read 08/30/09 as September 8, 2030, or September 30, 2008. Either spell out the date, with a 4-digit year, or use the ISO 8601 international date format of YYYY-MM-DD, which is unambiguous.
  6. There is no mention of the city! This is a big county, and while I’m sure this is not near where I live, if I’m traveling around, I might find myself near there without knowing it.
  7. There is no mention of what to do or who to call. If I see the mountain lion, should I run?
  8. The line (Con't) 2 of 2 wastes space and conflicts with the reality of the alert only taking one message.
  9. Only one reporting pg also wastes space, and is in conflict with the above line, which makes the message confusing.
  10. (End) wastes a further five characters, and also duplicates the information from the header/footer.

Here’s how to fix this mess:

  1. Drop the unreliable and slow SMTP to SMS gateway, and use a proper Short Message Service Center (SMSC) so the messages get delivered in 90 seconds instead of more than 90 minutes, if at all.
  2. Drop the headers, footers, and continued elements and make sure the alerts always fit in one SMS message. Or figure out how to create a Concatenated SMS message to make a message that is longer than 160 characters.
  3. Put a concise description of the alert at the very beginning of the message! Don’t make me read past fluff to discover that I should be running instead of reading.
  4. Include the date and time in the ISO 8601 format as part of the message, so that those people whose phones don’t always show the timestamp, or whose SMS reception has been delayed can know when the message was actually sent.
  5. Include the city and a few other details so we know exactly where the problem is.
  6. Include WGS-84 coordinates so I can use the GPS-enabled map in my phone to see where the problem is.
  7. Tell us what to do and who to call, so that I don’t have to call 911 to report that a mountain lion attacked some idiot who saw it and started running.

Here’s what my version of the above message would look like:

Mountain Lion sighting in creek area south of Canada Cove
Mobile Home Park, Half Moon Bay. If seen, don't run--
call 650-363-4911 or 911 map: http://bit.ly/bg8tA

In exactly 160 characters, this message provides far more detail than the original, and allows me to automatically call the OES emergency number or see the Google Map on my iPhone with just a tap.

I will share this post with the county OES, and see what kind of official or unofficial response I get. Stay tuned.

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

Leave a Reply