Mass text alerts - what are my options?
May 8, 2013 6:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for way to send SMS alerts to a large group - anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 subscribers. This is for a small town that needs to alert citizens of public works issues like water outages or boil water notices. Can we do this ourselves? What do we need? If not, what is the most cost effective method (provider)? These would not be frequent, regular alerts.
posted by dukes909 to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My local county uses a service called Nixle for messages from the emergency management agency. There's a section for agencies that want to enroll here.
posted by jquinby at 6:43 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hi Dukes!

Check out FrontlineSMS. It is a free, open source software platform that you can connect to an SMS Gateway like Clickatell to send exactly the types of messages you want.

Disclaimer: I work for FrontlineSMS. :)
posted by chrisalbon at 6:46 AM on May 8, 2013

...and here's what the messages generally look like. I get them via SMS: a very brief description plus a tiny URL to the full notice.
posted by jquinby at 6:46 AM on May 8, 2013

Check out - we use them for blast phone calls, and I know they have SMS options, too. Never used their SMS capabilities, though. Their customer service is very good.
posted by FergieBelle at 6:46 AM on May 8, 2013

This was one of the original functions of Twitter.
Looks like you can still do this, sort of.
posted by vacapinta at 6:49 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

My organization uses Extremely cheap and they have an api available.
posted by eamondaly at 6:55 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's not clear to me whether Nixle could be used for things like water outages?
posted by dukes909 at 6:58 AM on May 8, 2013

I've only gotten messages related to severe weather, but the product is advertised as useful for all manner of public notifications. No idea what's involved in setting it up, though.
posted by jquinby at 7:15 AM on May 8, 2013

Nixle is used by other towns for things exactly like water outages. I'm subscribed to Nixle alerts for the town I live in and the next closest town, and they both use them for things like street closures, notice of routes to avoid due to parades or running races, notice of power outages and changes in voting locations.
posted by de void at 7:18 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

My county uses Nixle. Seems to work well.

Washington DC uses

I'm interested in how Twitter could be used for something like this. I've thought of using #my zipcode plus neighborhood for a neighbor watch program.
posted by cda at 7:26 AM on May 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Someone pointed me to Twilio.. any experience there?
posted by dukes909 at 7:33 AM on May 8, 2013

If your town has someone with a little programming moxie, it's not hard to roll your own solution using Twilio or Voxeo.
posted by drwelby at 7:34 AM on May 8, 2013

Oh, since you asked - Twilio will do the sending of messages but you'll need something to do the storage of numbers and initiate the calls. Typically this would be some sort of web framework like Django or Rails. You can see my setup here.

Voxeo is slightly cheaper than Twilio and has better interactive features (which you won't really use anyway). The catch with them is that you have to throttle your outbound messages yourself and if you exceed their cap they just drop your messages without any notification. Twilio does the throttling on their own end so they just queue up your messages and then send them out (1 per second). Since you want to send out up to 5000 messages one question would be whether you need them sent out faster.
posted by drwelby at 7:50 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm subscribed to half-a-dozen agencies' alerts in Nixle. I get alerts about everything from 'avoid this intersection due to a bad accident' to 'missing kid' to 'be careful because a moose was sighted on campus'. I'd think 'boil water due to storm water contamination' or whatever would fit right in.

It's an opt-in sort of thing, though.

It has the advantage that while it can send SMS, the recipient doesn't have to receive the messages by SMS. Which is nice if you don't have a texting plan or even a cell phone.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:00 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

It looks like there is an easier way using Twitter. I haven't tried it though:

1. Create a twitter account for your purpose.
2. Tell everyone to follow you and follow the instructions here. (Turning on tweet notifications for a specific person)
3. Everytime you tweet, the message will get sent to their mobile phone.
posted by vacapinta at 8:04 AM on May 8, 2013

Twitter looks good but would require folks to already have Twitter accounts.. It may sound odd here but most people here in our organization don't even use Twitter, but that may be kinda unusual anymore, not sure.
posted by dukes909 at 8:10 AM on May 8, 2013

Code Red
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:23 AM on May 8, 2013

This is for emergency alerts only (Presidential, Imminent threat like tornado warning, and Amber Alert) so your case might be out but it's still worth looking into. There is something called CMAS, which is an FCC mandate. According to the site - The CMAS would consist of an end-to-end system by which an Alert Aggregator/Gateway would receive, authenticate, validate and format Federal, state, tribal and local alerts and then forward them to the appropriate CMS Provider Gateway. The CMS Provider Gateway and associated infrastructure would process the alerts and transmit them to subscriber handsets.
posted by 7life at 8:30 AM on May 8, 2013

Twitter looks good but would require folks to already have Twitter accounts.

Nope, they just need to text "ON [username]" to 40404. It'll prompt them for a name and some other info, but you can do it all via SMS.

The wisdom of using a free service with no SLA is an exercise left to the reader.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:31 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

There was a similar question with several answers a couple of months ago. You may want to take a look to see if anything posted there is helpful.
posted by RichardP at 8:36 AM on May 8, 2013

Twilio and Tropo are both great but so is Plivo, and it's cheaper in the US.
posted by rada at 10:14 AM on May 8, 2013

FYI my city uses Blackboard Connect and I expect it is much more expensive than the other options here.
posted by epanalepsis at 11:23 AM on May 8, 2013

Here in Honolulu, the local police and department of emergency management use Nixle to announce flash flood alerts, road blocks, busted water mains, and all sorts of things. They're also pretty savvy about getting info out via Twitter and Facebook.

The National Disaster Preparedness Training Center runs nation-wide trainings on the use of social media in disaster response and recovery, which might be helpful as well.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:37 PM on May 8, 2013

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