Utah’s ‘bold experiment’ to text alerts to road travelers to collect coronavirus data ends abruptly

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press photo) The "Welcome to Utah" sign is shown Friday, April 10, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Travelers coming into Utah are being asked to identify themselves and report any coronavirus symptoms as they arrive, Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Efforts to send text messages to road travelers at the border have been halted, officials announced Monday, April 13.

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Utah’s first-in-the-nation experiment in targeting text alerts at travelers driving over the state line is over, three days after it was launched to collect data about the coronavirus.

“We have turned off the alert — it has been canceled,” Joe Dougherty, public information officer for the Utah Division of Emergency Management, said Monday at the state government’s daily news briefing.

The idea was to urge visitors to Utah — driving through nine spots where freeways cross the state border — to fill out an online survey. Travelers were being asked to answer whether they have experienced symptoms of COVID-19, and where they have been before coming to Utah.

The system, which was supposed to send text alerts to any phone near a cellphone tower near the border, “didn’t work exactly as we hoped,” Dougherty said.

Since the system’s launch Friday, he said, “a number of residents in the state received alerts in their homes, in their bathrooms, and in other locations when they were quite far from the borders.”

“Some people clearly got an annoying number of messages,” Dougherty said, some of them 15 times.

The state learned, Dougherty said, “that these messages will sometimes alert much farther than the areas that we intended.” He apologized to people in the St. George area and the Uinta Basin, both in Utah, and Oneida County in Idaho — north of the Utah border — for being sent repeated messages.

The technology to send text alerts to cellphones is often used for Amber alerts, but Utah was the first state to try to use it for this kind of targeted messaging, Dougherty said.

“It was a really bold experiment, and I’m proud that we could be a part of it,” Dougherty said. He added, though, that the state isn’t planning to use it this way again.

The state still will ask road travelers, via highway readerboards, to fill out the survey. The state also will continue to distribute postcards to visitors coming into Salt Lake City International Airport. Those postcards include a QR code, which can be used to access the survey online.

Dougherty said more than 10,000 people have filled out the survey. The state could not collect data on how many people received the cellphone alerts, he said, because they were sent broadly through cellphone towers.

As Dougherty was speaking, some Salt Lake County residents received a different text alert. At 2:01 p.m. Monday, the Salt Lake County Emergency Management office sent the alert, with a reminder to county residents that Mayor Jenny Wilson’s stay-at-home order has been extended through May 1.

The alert went out, said Tina Brown, the office’s spokeswoman, because Monday would have been the day that Wilson’s original order expired.

“We’ve also been receiving a lot of requests to send an alert since we’re hearing there’s a large majority of people who are not getting any information about the stay-home order,” Brown said in an email.