Though texting is generally used as a casual form of communication, University researchers are exploring the medium as a new means of collecting data and interacting with communities. Their pilot participants: low-income Detroit residents.

Dr. Tammy Chang, assistant professor of family medicine at the Medical School, and member of the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, is leading a team of researchers for the pilot. The goal is to collect data on subjects’ medical knowledge, literacy and numeracy. The study focuses on the residents of the Villages at Parkside, a low-income predominantly African-American community in Detroit.

Chang said texting is different from other forms of collecting information, such as online or physical surveys and phone interviews, because it allows researchers to receive real-time information from the group they are trying to learn more about. She also said cell phone ownership and use has been found to be particularly high within African-American communities, making it easy to focus the sampling to that demographic.

“You’re not necessarily going to go to a community meeting after working two jobs,” Chang said. “You’re not necessarily going to feel like filling out a five-page survey and when somebody calls you on the phone, you may not necessarily feel like talking to them about your opinion about x, y, z things. What’s awesome about text messaging for this group is that it’s allowing them to speak to us in a language, in a modality that they’re used to. They can do it on their time when they feel like it.”

Zachary Rowe, executive director of Friends of Parkside, a Detroit nonprofit that focuses on the well-being of the community’s residents, collaborated with Chang. He also created the program Parkside Connected!– a repository of cell phone numbers of the residents of Parkside. FOP uses this program to send out information such as the time and location of important community events, including food giveaways or health fairs. During Chang’s research project, individuals who were part of Parkside Connected! were recruited to be part of the pilot study.

Twenty participants who were familiar with receiving texts from FOP received and answered multiple texts at varying times and days regarding a range of topics.

“In our study, we asked them what they would do in different medical scenarios,” Chang said. “Another one we piloted was literacy and numeracy questions where we basically used these validated questions to understand illiteracy and innumeracy of the community. We were able to get really great information that could potentially be used to tailor interventions.”

In one medical scenario, the participants received a text message asking them what they would do if one side of their body became numb and they could not talk. Because many people responded that they would probably stay home, the researchers determined that many residents did not know the signs of a stroke. This finding led to programming to help spread the word in Parkside about receiving proper medical care and being on watch for health warning signs.

“We sent the texts at different times of the day and different days of the week because sometimes their regular doctor’s office would be open and sometimes it wouldn’t,” Chang said. “We would want to know, oh, would they stay home, or would they go to the emergency room.”

Karen Daniels, a Parkside resident who participated in the study, said she heard about the study from a text message she received and decided to participate so she could improve her texting skills. Daniels also said she now prefers texting to other forms of communication.

“It’s faster than talking on the phone and you get to the point faster,” Daniels said. “I would definitely answer a text before I would answer a voicemail.”

Using texting to gather information also has many implications for nonprofits and community organizations. These groups could potentially direct questions to members of the communities they are trying to help about how to use the nonprofits’ resources, and about what those communities’ top priorities are.

“I don’t want just me to use this technology,” Chang said. “I hope that other people see how easy it can be and then how they may be able to incorporate the opinions and the viewpoints of the people they’re working with as well.”

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