If you have an email notification system in place through your calendar and/or library automation system, you may not know it but you also have a basic text message notification system. What it takes to make this work is some basic knowledge of email to SMS gateways, how it works, and a little finagling with the wording of your email notices. This may not work for every system (and there is certainly a question or two I can’t answer towards the conclusion of this post), but it could offer libraries another notification method to customers with only a little extra staff work.
In case you didn’t know it, every cell phone number has a corresponding email address set up by the mobile carrier. This allows a person to send an email to a specific address which is then converted into a text message for the destined recipient. This is what is known as an email to SMS (or text) gateway. The rubric for discovering this email address is devilishly simple.
The first part of the address (the user name) is the person’s phone number. The second part (the domain name) requires consulting a list of Email to SMS Gateways, for each carrier has its own unique address. Here is a list of carrier gateways from mutube dated December 12, 2009.
(If you want to double check for a carrier, you can enter “email to sms gateway [insert the name of the carrier here]” into a search engine.)
So, by taking the person phone number and finding out their carrier, you have found out their email to SMS address. For example, if my phone number was 856-555-1212 and my carrier was Verizon, my email to SMS address would be email@example.com. (Phonefirstname.lastname@example.org)
Now that you have this address, what can you do with it? Here’s the tricky part.
When converting an email to a text message, the conversion can take the first 160 characters of an email and dumps the rest of the message. In testing this out with my library system’s calendar, it turned this regular calendar registration notification email from this:
to this text message (two pictures, one text message):
As you can see, it cut the message right at the word “Wii”. In doing my own testing on my cell phone by sending myself multiple messages from different email addresses, the way that it converts the email to the text message is this: sender email, the @ symbol, subject line, then the rest of the message. Judging from the notification I received, the number of characters used from the above pictured example broke down like so:
- email@example.com @ (27 characters)
- Subject: Library Event Registration – Confirmatio (49; it cut off the ‘n’ of the word ‘confirmation’)
- You are registered for the following Burlington County Library System event: Wii (80)
What this means is that, if you have a very email notification address and a long subject line, you won’t have very much space for a message with this hack. While the numbers above add up to 156, my educated guess is that there are 4 spaces that can not be counted within the retyped message as it appears on my phone screen. However, the important information here is the number of characters in the notification sender email and the subject line of the email. Once you know the number of characters they use up, you can structure the body of your email to ensure that the information you want people to get in a text message is received while not completely unintelligible for people who receive regular email notifications.
In using my notification as an example, since I know that the email and subject line are going to take up roughly 76 characters, I can structure my notification email to have the event be at the top so the resulting text message body would end up looking like this:
Wii for Seniors!
Wednesday, Dec. 23 10:30AM
That’s a total of 60 character spaces, putting me at 136 characters for the message. A blank line of 40 to 50 spaces below the last line of the event in the email notification template will ensure that they will not get any of the lines at the conclusion of the email (which would be cut off anyway by the character limit.) It should be noted that there is an additional 24 characters available for a longer program or library name. (It would not work for a program named “Understanding Addiction and the Impact on the Family” at a whopping 52 characters without cutting off the date, but it could remind a customer about the program name and location to suffice.) However, it would still achieve the goal of being a text message notification of a program registration and reminder.
What this hack boils down to is playing with the known variables (the email address, the subject line, and the total number of characters left) and seeing whether they would work for your library. For my system, it would take a restructuring of our event confirmation and reminder emails, but that is well within our grasp. It might even be possible to make this work with our automation program, but that would require more investigation.
The GIANT CAVEAT that would loom like a specter over this hack are any legal notices that are required with text messaging. With the text message pilot program, we are required to put on all of our advertising materials two statements: first, that standard text message rates apply; and second, the number of messages that a person will receive a week. The possible mitigating factors (read: upside) is that this is not an opt-in subscription program, it’s a one time notification process at the discretion of the customer, and that it could cost the customer $0.10-0.20 (the usual cost of 1-2 text messages) at most. The bottom line is that it is worth checking to make sure you are legally in the clear before going through all of this effort.
If anyone tries this out, let me know. I’m curious to hear about potential uses and results from actual field testing. I’ll keep you updated if The Powers That Be decide to use it in our library system. For me, I’m glad to share the idea because, at no additional cost, it adapts existing technology with just a little extra staff effort to give a customer a valuable and requested service.
Isn’t that what being a librarian is all about?