Untestable Variables of the Masses

 Go to Poll EverywhereThere are just some things you simply cannot plan for. For example, how do you plan for something that works on a small scale, but is untestable until moment zero for actual reality. A real life demonstration of these inevitable folly reared its ugly head Sunday morning January 4th, 2008. The trouble I ran into was with the seemingly excellent and functional online service known as PollEverwhere.com.

I introduced the using of this service in a “smaller testing market” in the morning High School service at Blue Ridge Community Church. Realizing the potential dangers of using a system like this right off the bat in a huge environment could be a risk difficult to recover from, I felt this was a safe place to get my proverbial feet wet.

For those of you not familiar with Poll Everywhere’s services and capabilities, it is designed with a moron-proof web interface that allows you to build interactive live audience polls using SMS (text messaging) and a short-code paired with a response. Using text messaging the graph/poll on screen is updated live almost instantaneously. The graphs are customizable and can be fitted to your needs. The downside is because they are live updated, they are only functional in Powerpoint on PC and not on mac (for some reason powerpoint for mac blocks the ability for a .swf object to access an outside source for information (lame).

So the concept was simple:

  1. Questions on the screen
  2. People Text in their answers to the short-code provided
  3. Graph updates and works perfectly
  4. Much rejoicing and praise for all

However, unanticipated glitch was found in between number 2 & 3 of the above steps. The whole thing choked up. The first 30 or so votes came through no problem, but after that, one at a time squeaked through maybe every 15 seconds or so. My head is spinning trying to figure out where the bottle neck was occurring. As I was voting from my iPhone, I could watch my vote go through immediately, what was the problem?

Well during the second service I figured out what the actual problem was. It turns out that the service polleverywhere.com was not at fault, nor was the internet connectivity of our church, but it was the local SMS service in that area, regardless of who your cell phone carrier is.

I learned that day that every single cell company in the world is enslaved to the demands of a mere handful of companies that hold a seeming monopoly on the text messaging world. These few companies are what’s called SMS Gateway Providers, and they interconnect with every cell carrier to handle text messaging services. These companies have what are called Short Message Service Centers (SMS-C) scattered about to handle the text messages as they come in. Turns out, that in lower density ares of the country (like Blue Ridge’s location), they don’t have the same coverage as they would have in say downtown NYC or San Francisco. So when we sent them a surge of over 500 text messages in under 10 seconds, they were not quite fit to handle it in our given location, at all.

So needless to say, testing it in the high school room was a success with their limited number of users, however using it in the big room where the numbers increase exponentially was a complete and unexpected disaster.

Like I said, things you can only discover in the moment. Has anyone else ever run into any situations like this before where your lesson could only be learned in that very moment? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.