In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, campuses are creating emergency notification systems. Brown has outsourced this to a company called MIR3 Intelligent Notification. We had a test run today.
I was aware this morning that there was going to be a test. But I was out for much of the afternoon so I forgot all about it.
I was at my desk this afternoon working on something important when I got a call. It was clearly an automated message (initial pause, followed by a slightly robotic voice), and all it said was something along these lines: “This is an important call. Please press 1 for an important message.” (Certainly the second sentence was verbatim.)
That's it. No identifying information, nothing, nada.
If you've ever worked from home, you know that this is precisely the kind of message that you get mid-day from guys trying to sell you timeshares in Florida. Same kind of voice, same lack of identifying information, same pretend sense of urgency to con you into listening further.
So I hung up, quietly cursing that the damn telemarketers had somehow managed to get my office line.
Only an hour later did I realize what the call was about.
Today they also sent us emergency notification email messages. The messages came in the name of a Brown administrator but from the MIR3 domain name, and the headers had enough to trigger the suspicion of many a spam filter:
Date: Thu, 6 Sep 2007 12:34:00 -0700 (PDT)
From: Walter Hunter <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Reply-To: MIR3 System <email@example.com>
To: my Brown email address
Subject: Faculty/Staff Notification - Test Only issued at 9/6/07 12:30 PM
It's even more likely to be binned in my case, because I know and have corresponded many times with Walter Hunter, and never through this email address.
Unsatisfied by my unresponsiveness it sent me the same message again, eleven minutes later.
The message body also demonstrated good attention to detail:
We are attempting to verify the accuracy of our data base. Please press or select "1" if you are a staff member
How's that again? I keep pressing 1 at my keyboard...but my email program doesn't seem to know what to do about it. (Don't overlook the charming Victorian prose touch: “data base”.)
!!! You may respond by doing one of the following: !!!
Nice touch, the three-exclamatory-marks. If the headers made it through a spam filter, this should give the message a fighting chance of being trapped.
And finally, one of my response options:
* Reply to this email with the corresponding number to your response on the top line within the body of the email, e.g., 1 for indicating that you wish to use response option 1.
1 Faculty or Staff Member
2 Contacted in Error
Clearly these folks are adherents to the rule that, in an emergency, you should make your sentences maximally complicated. The logic is obvious: that's how you test whether the recipient is still clear-headed or is already suffering from smoke-inhalation.
Of course, this is why we conduct tests: so we understand how well our systems work and can, in turn, improve them for when we actually need them. But this first run does not give me a lot of confidence in this company's knowledge of how to create trustworthy communication.
Now I'm waiting to hear now many millions we spent on these “professionals”.