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A lesson learned

PAB partners with St. John’s company to text regional info

Tim Bonnell, Co-founder and CTO; Mike Power, Software Developer; Josh Taylor, Founder and CEO; Rainey Cromwell, Designer. – Submittted photo

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

PORT AUX BASQUES — The town has unveiled its plan to offer texting alerts to residents up and down the Southwest Coast using software created by Newfoundland company TxtSquad. Josh Taylor, Founder and CEO of TxtSquad, started the company in 2020. “It came out of some work we were doing in the U.S. through my software consultancy. We built a platform down in the U.S. for a large franchise in 2018-2019, and in 2018 we saw a need to add urgency to the processes we were doing with them, so we integrated texting and it was like a light bulb went off and we realized that people really respond to texts. The read rates are high. The response rates are high. So we integrated it into that platform and as soon as we saw that we said we need to build this as a standalone system.” The new system delivers the service over the internet to residents that sign up to receive these alerts. “It’s a cloud-based system that sends text messages or SMS messages to residents of Channel-Port aux Basques and it does it using mass broadcast. So it sends them out in bulk, and messages include things like snow clearing, garbage collection, potential water shut offs, power outages, road outages, detours, or any other emergency weather situations that could arise.” Taylor credits Minister Andrew Parsons (Industry, Energy and Technology) as the person who originally identified the opportunity and connected TxtSquad with the Town, but Parsons said he can’t take all the credit. “This was the perfect convergence of the work I do in my Department and being the MHA for the area (Burgeo – La Poile). I had met Josh and TxtSquad through departmental work, the technology side of things. We had chatted about things they were doing and trying to do,” said Parsons. “Then when you combine that with being at home, being at the town hall and talking with Brian (Button) and Leon (MacIsaac) and council, knowing that whenever something comes up, especially since Fiona where they are literally phoning everybody trying to connect with people and pass along information, putting two and two together it was a relationship that needed to happen. Brian and the Town were all for it, Josh and TxtSquad were all for it, and all I had to do was put them together. They came up with the rest.” The introduction of this new software was not a result of anyone not doing enough. “If anything, the Town and everyone has gone above and beyond, but it’s a realization that today it’s a lot easier to get a nice chunk of your population by text than it is by phone,” said Parsons. “It doesn’t fully replace anything. My grandmother isn’t going to get a text, but there is a big chunk of our population, myself included, that sometimes text is easier to get me.” TxtSquad has a lot of experience to showcase their software. “One of our biggest audiences is our school lunch program. We do a school lunch program in St. John’s, we do the province of PEI and we’re just on board in Québec. We also do community colleges. We do Keyan and Academy Canada here as well, as well as a ton of other not-for-profits like Office to Advance Women Apprentices, Big Brothers/Big Sisters Newfoundland. So we have quite a business group around using text to increase engagement.” Although this is the company’s first partnership with a municipality, Taylor said the program still functions the same as any of the others. “It’s the same on a large scale, but we have customers with audiences that are over 10,000, so this is not anywhere near our largest. In the beginning we were a little intimidated by municipalities, back two years ago, but now it’s not a challenge at all.” Taylor hopes this will lead to further opportunities with other municipalities. “We’re interested and are definitely going to explore providing the service to other municipalities. This has already been a very positive response and is working pretty well, but this is going to be a case study that we are going to use to expand and offer this service to many municipalities across North America,” said Taylor. “We can keep citizens apprised and up-to-date for five to ten cents a month per citizen, so it’s a really low cost, but it depends on the number of messages.” Mayor Brian Button hopes this service will allow for quicker, more wide-spread messaging to alert residents when something requires their attention. “It’s a new service that we’re providing. It takes us back a little bit before Fiona and stuff, and then what we went through with Fiona, trying to get the messages out. A lot of questions were raised about where we see deficiencies in our emergency plans and things we’d like to improve,” explained Button. “This would have been one of them. The night of Fiona, we were very fortunate to get a lot of messages out, but we did it old school. We were calling people and we were looking through the roll. We were texting some people, but we wanted to find a solution to be able to get messages out quicker in the best and most effective way.” The idea to go with text messaging wasn’t the only option on the table. “We had a fair number of conversations leading up to this and we didn’t know if we should send emails out or texts,” said Button. “Every indication we had found from the research we did was that text messaging gets to more people quicker and faster than an email. I might look at my email this morning and not look at it anymore until tonight, but a text message seems to prompt us right away to have a look.” After partnering with TxtSquad to offer the service, the town had numerous conversations with them to explain exactly what they needed. “They found with emails they were reaching about 30 to 40 per cent of parents, but with the text messages they got over 90 per cent.” Button said the whole process was relatively simple. “It was easy. We went through a step of designing it and looking at it. It was easy for us for set up with residents being able to register to get the messages, and we wanted something that we could use, not just if there was an emergency like Fiona. We looked at it like, this past weekend for example, on Saturday, we had to shut off the water over in Grand Bay West to work on the ruptured pipe, and we used the text message system just to try it for people that have signed up. We’ve had a nice few that have signed up. I believe there is 400 or more that have signed up,” said Button. The fact that there aren’t a lot of ways in the community to get urgent messages out was one of the main reasons the town wanted to move forward with text alerts. “One of the big things that we don’t have anymore is we don’t have a local radio where you can get your message out and everyone is listening. The paper (Wreckhouse Weekly) is a weekly paper. We can get it over to you and you can get it on Facebook, we can also put it on Facebook, but this gives us another avenue to get the messages out quickly and to make sure that, if people need to know, it can reach as far and wide as we want it to,” said Button. “This is only going to be used when there are messages to go out. We don’t want it to flood someone’s text messaging on every little thing that’s happening.” So far, as the testing phase is well underway, results look promising, and this testing period will allow for any necessary tweaking and changes once it’s determined what works and what doesn’t. “It hasn’t even been a week. We just put it out at the end of the week (Jan. 6) and started to share it. Ever since then, when Nadine (Osmond) put it on Facebook and we shared it, people were signing up fast,” said Button. “People from outside of Port aux Basques can sign up as well. The reason why we’ve got it reached out to outlying residents, this is for them to receive a text message regarding garbage collections, for example, since our garbage collection reaches out and goes right down the coast.” This service will not cost the residents of Port aux Basques. It is a free service, and the cost is minimal for the town to implement. The text messages will be non-responsive as well, so residents will be unable to respond to a text they receive. “Having an aging population, you’d be surprised how many people use texts,” said Button. “More and more do, but even the ones that don’t, this is the opportunity for a family member, even living away, to sign up for it. Someone might be living in Ontario knowing their Mom or Dad lives here, they can sign up for it and can contact their Mom and Dad when a text message comes in.” Button hopes it will increase the number of residents they are able to reach, especially during times of emergency such as Fiona. “Since Fiona has happened, and there were so many messages we needed to put out before the storm hit, after the storm hit, and during. We had messages we were trying to get out,” said Button. “I know there’s no system out there that we can guarantee that we are going to get everybody, but looking at the way this has worked, especially during the school projects, how it reaches out and how effective it’s been, we are like a test pilot in municipalities for this group. We will test it and see how it works for us as a municipality and we’ll see how it goes. If it goes well, we will probably see other municipalities join in on it as well if they don’t already have their own systems.”

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