New system sends life-saving text messages to residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

Dec 19 2017, 7:56 pm

This past June, seven people overdosed in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside from an apparent “bad batch” of heroine, prompting local police and public officials to issue a warning to local service agencies and media outlets.

When these toxic batches of drugs enter a market like Vancouver, the results are tragic, and in many cases preventable with quick medical attention.

With its “street messaging system” the Vancouver Community Network (VCN) is working to ensure that life-saving information can circulate quickly among affected groups via text message.  The project got a boost this year from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA)’s Community Investment Program, allowing VCN to complete initial development and set the program to launch in early September.

“The idea came to me in the winter, after trying to help get Extreme Weather Shelter information to people by taping notices to the windows at the Woodwards building,” said Tracey Axelsson, executive director of VCN.  “I knew that this information would help people experiencing homelessness at a difficult time of year, but I was frustrated by the fact that the signage likely had zero impact.  With so many people in the community now carrying cellphones, reaching them by text message made more sense.”

The street messaging system leverages SMS technology to send short messages to mobile devices. Street-involved people can register to get alerts directly from agencies working in the region.  The system will provide updates on availability of shelter beds, locations of food being distributed, and work and training opportunities. It is also able to send out alerts about bad batches, missing persons or other health-related messages.   “If knowledge is power, this system will put it right into the hands of those that need it most,” said Axelsson.

“This is the type of made-in-Canada innovation our Community Investment Program is designed to facilitate,” said Jenifer Austin, CIRA’s senior manager of communications and thought leadership.  “Sometimes the most powerful tools are the ones that link simple, but powerful, technologies with smart and passionate people. The Vancouver Community Network is showing what can be done when we leverage telecom infrastructure to solve real-world problems.”

VCN’s street messaging system can be found at Clients can sign-up now and the system will be sending texts starting in early September.

Feature image: Text message via shutterstock

DH Vancouver StaffDH Vancouver Staff

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