University announces plans to update emergency alert system

Monday, January 25, 2016 - 9:03pm

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The University is set to unveil another way to stay connected to its emergency alert system sometime this semester.

Beginning Dec. 4, Michigan's Department of Information and Technology Services began testing a way for students to receive emergency alerts via push notifications from the University's official mobile application, the Michigan App.

The notifications would supplement the University’s already established system for distributing emergency alerts, which includes text messages, voicemail, e-mail, digital signage, the University website and Twitter.

The update would also allow non-Michigan community members, such as parents or University contractors, to stay informed of potentially threatening situations as well, as long as they have downloaded the application and enabled push notifications.

During the testing process, ITS researchers sent surveys to more than 4,000 University students, staff and faculty seeking feedback about the effectiveness of push notifications on the application.

In an interview, Diane Brown, spokeswoman for the University’s Division of Public Safety and Security, said the surveys showed push notifications were reaching University community members quickly.

“With initial testing, it was discovered that at many times the push notifications would reach recipients faster than texts,” she said.

In a statement, Scott Taylor, executive director of ITS Solution Design and Delivery and interim executive director of ITS Application and Information Services, said he believes the surveys will help further improve the system.  

“We are continuing to refine our systems to send texts, e-mails and voice alerts out faster than ever," he said. "The Michigan App push alert mechanism needs some adjustments to increase reliability for emergency alerts.”

Brown said one of the main obstacles facing the ITS department to create the feature was accounting for the formatting differences between Android and Apple operating systems.

“During testing we realized there was a difference in experience for receiving alerts which needs to be smoothed out,” she said.  

She added that because the notifications can only be 100 characters each, DPSS’s focus for the upcoming months will be on how to create precise and informative alerts to ensure each fits the formatting for all messaging systems at their disposal. 

Surrounding universities such as Michigan State, Western Michigan and Central Michigan all use e-mails and texts to inform students of any dangers on campus, but have not developed anything beyond that, according to their websites.  

Brown said focusing on improving safety within the Ann Arbor community was the project’s main focus.

“We have people on staff who are aware of what they are doing at other schools, but that is not our main focus,” she said. “We worry about getting the message out as soon as we can, as fast as we can.”