WORLDBEAT : Israel’s SMS technology under terror

All busses, cabs, stores, and other public places in Israel have one thing in common: a nearly pathological addiction to the hourly radio news. No matter where, no matter how much noise there is a minute before the hour, on the hour all is quiet for the first headline.

The reason for this is obvious: a constant ingrained worry that a terrorist bomb or shooting may have occurred. This same worry is blazing the trail for a new range of services that send breaking news electronically, recently over Short Message Service (SMS) services.

The first such services were offered by local newspapers, including both Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. Newer and more novel services, however, are being offered by new companies starting up to serve the need.

One such service, SMS Israel, offers three levels of subscription. “Breaking news” sends SMS messages only for significant events, such as terror events or government announcements about sealed rooms and gas masks during the Iraq war. Each such event gets only one or two “breaking” messages each, with follow up details on the “headline news” service, which provides more detail. Finally, the “all news” service gives all the details that people may want. The services are priced progressively, and uptake has been “slow but steady” according to a company spokesman.

One interesting issue that has arisen is the trade-off between quick response and news accuracy. News culled from police and ambulance radios, for example, can be disseminated much faster by SMS than newspapers or on-line services can respond, but runs the risk of being unconfirmed. Several times in the past year, alerts were sent about suspected shootings or bombings that turned out to be a bus backfiring or construction explosions. Nonetheless, customers appear willing to make this trade-off in order to get news faster. Perhaps future service options will include a “confirmed” or “unconfirmed” distinction.

Israeli SMS services have had moderate results marketing to Americans and Europeans interested in Israeli breaking news. Many are parents, relatives, or friends of Israelis, but others simply want to follow the news as it breaks. Obviously such a market, larger than the local market, is worth understanding and catering to.

More important is simply educating the general pubic about SMS services. While Israeli cellphone adoption rates are among the highest in the world, SMS services are still largely for kids or techies. This will have to change for these services to grow.

As the services continue to develop and cellphone users become more educated about SMS, the possibilities are endless. A likely big area of future services is automated “I’m OK” confirmations for people near terror events. Such services could ease the 15 minutes of panic Israelis feel after each bomb, as they attempt to reach all their relatives and friends by cellphone. Notifications of friends and relatives who were in the same city but far from the bomb would be easy to implement, and could even operate on coarse cell data without sophisticated GPS technology. Simple SMS responses (“I’m OK”) could be automatically distributed to prearranged lists of people. Voice portal systems could call those unable to handle the SMS use.

The options continue. Location-based services for people nearby could let people be notified about events in their area, without interrupting them for events in other cities. Options to integrate instant message services with SMS systems could let people be reached in the fastest and most cost-effective manner at any time.

However these services evolve, are all potentially valuable services that are only the tip of the iceberg for SMS-based technology in terror situations.