As Hurricane Sandy moves up the East Coast, a surprisingly adept tool emerges: SMS

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 30, 2012

From The News Desk

The last time I wrote about the Short Message Service (SMS) protocol was when it was being used to help keep sheep alive and measure just how hot (hormonally) Switzerland's bovines are at any given moment. These tools, while helpful, only appeal to a very specific subset of phone owners – namely, European shepherds and cow farmers.

Now, with Hurricane Sandy continuing to make its way up the East Coast, SMS has stepped back into the limelight to help people communicate with one another, keep in touch with government officials, and, for those that haven't been hit by the storm, donate to the Red Cross in an effort to help from afar.

Using SMS to communicate with the outside world isn't exactly groundbreaking – the US sent 2.27 trillion text messages back in 2009 – but it has served well as a fallback in case other methods of communication fail. Twitter users could post and receive updates via the service, allowing people that may not otherwise be able to find out what's happening, even if their Internet connections are down or if they are one of the 750,000 New Yorkers left without power in Sandy's wake.

Beyond letting family members and Twitter followers know what's going on, SMS has also become a tool for interacting with New York City officials. The city's phone lines have been inundated with as many as 10,000 calls per half-hour, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg repeatedly asked New Yorkers to send a text to 311692 instead of trying – and, as was increasingly likely, failing – to get through with a phone call.

Finally, though this isn't new to Hurricane Sandy, the Red Cross accepts donations via SMS. The process is simple: Users text "REDCROSS" to 90999, the Red Cross gets the message, and then the user pays $10 through their cellular carrier. With 6,100 New Yorkers in one of the city's shelters and the evacuation or closing of some of the city's hospitals, these donations can be a good, easy way to help from afar.

Each of these takes advantage of a different aspect of SMS. For staying in touch with friends and family, one of the biggest benefits of sending a text message instead of calling or (god forbid) voice chatting is the minimal impact that sending and receiving texts has on battery life. When the lights go out and there isn't any electricity being pumped (or however electricity is distributed) through the outlets, every bit of battery-saving technology matters.

On the other end of the spectrum, New York seems to prefer SMS to phone calls because it frees the operator to handle actual emergencies. Informing the city that a tree is down or that a road has flooded via text might not be as emotionally satisfying to the person forced to watch the rising waters, but it leaves that phone line open for someone stuck in a real bind.

Donating via SMS is another beast entirely. This one may have more to do with the convenience factor and removing friction than anything else. As Whitney Phaneuf wrote in regards to mobile payments, separating the transaction from the bill can lead to spending more money. In the Red Cross's case, someone might be more willing to donate $10 if all they need to do is send a text message than they would be if they had to provide their name, address, and credit card information. Saving time is money.

As I wrote during that story about the sheep and the cows, SMS is a versatile tool that continues to prove useful – or, perhaps, critical – even as other proprietary solutions try to barge in on its territory. Friends and family of those affected by the hurricane, Twitter, New York City officials, and the Red Cross couldn't care less about whether you're using a BlackBerry phone or an iPhone, and utilizing SMS allows them to stay in touch with anyone that has a few more seconds of battery life and a good enough cellular connection.