Mobile phones and short message service texts to collect situational awareness data during simulated public health critical events


  • Matthew Magee, MPH
  • Alex Isakov, MD, MPH
  • Helen Tang Paradise, MD, MPH
  • Patrick Sullivan, PhD, DVM



mobile phone, text message, preparedness, surveillance, simulation


Objective: Text messages are useful for timely communication during public health emergencies and for transmitting health data in infrastructure-limited settings. Little is known about the feasibility of twoway short message service (SMS) communication to collect public health preparedness and surveillance data. The authors aimed to determine the feasibility and acceptability of using two-way SMS texts to collect situational assessment (SA) data in simulated disaster events during a university-based pilot study.
Design: Eligible participants included university students with a mobile phone and messaging plan. Enrollment began in September 2009, and was open until the end of the study in May 2010. Participants attended a training session and provided demographic and phone use information using a baseline survey. Participants responded to SMS SAs that were sent directly to their phones throughout the study period. Frequency, completeness, and time to reporting were recorded for each procedure using an online commercial software package.
Results: Sixty-three participants enrolled; median age was 25 years, most were female (74.6 percent), lived off campus (76.2 percent), and were graduate students (76.2 percent). Most participants had a family/joint mobile phone account (73.0 percent) with unlimited messaging (60.3 percent). The median daily number of texts sent and received was 8 and 9, respectively. During five SAs, 194 (76.7 percent) of 253 prompted text surveys were completed. Nearly 60 percent of surveys were completed within 20 minutes of text deployment.
Conclusions: Using two-way SMS communication for surveillance and reporting was feasible among a group of motivated students. Similar methods may provide timely data during public health critical events.

Author Biographies

Matthew Magee, MPH

Department of Epidemiology, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Alex Isakov, MD, MPH

Executive Director, Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Helen Tang Paradise, MD, MPH

Internal Medicine Residency Program, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts.

Patrick Sullivan, PhD, DVM

Department of Epidemiology, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.


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How to Cite

Magee, MPH, M., A. Isakov, MD, MPH, H. T. Paradise, MD, MPH, and P. Sullivan, PhD, DVM. “Mobile Phones and Short Message Service Texts to Collect Situational Awareness Data During Simulated Public Health Critical Events”. American Journal of Disaster Medicine, vol. 6, no. 6, Nov. 2011, pp. 379-86, doi:10.5055/ajdm.2011.0076.