Most of us think about SMS, or texting, as a frivolous personal communication method. Sometimes it can be useful to get important updates (my flight is delayed, traffic is getting worse, my next appointment is coming up). Increasingly, the elegant simplicity of SMS is being harnessed to save lives, avert emergencies, and simply connect people to the things they need.

One great example is happening in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh to alert citizens when rice rations are available. A food scheme there run by the government allots 35kgs of rice a month to beneficiaries at a rate of Rs3 per kg. However, having people showing up when there is no rice available or releasing it all at one time is at the least inefficient, and at most potentially trouble. So, why not send a text message to let each family know when their rice allotment is available for pickup?

Public notification uses for SMS are becoming increasingly useful and popular in developing countries as mobile device penetration grows. Typhoon warnings, epidemic outbreaks, and other public safety warnings are being distributed in more areas, and while the whole population may not have mobile phones, SMS is seen as effective in getting word out quickly to a growing population of users, who can potentially pass word to others (researchers at Purdue University have tested this idea to see how mass alerts work and how quickly they travel). Even distributing one cheap device per village can be effective. More useful applications emerge when SMS becomes a two-way channel to update central authorities of local conditions--who needs help, what supplies are required, or which emergency situations are emerging.