Monday, August 02, 2010

Ward Phone List Challenges and Opportunities

It wasn’t that long ago that the quickest way to get a message out to other members of the average LDS ward was to ride a horse or walk to a handful of farms. I’m sure that as telephones gained in popularity, people fretted about the loss of face-to-face contact.

When I was a kid, the only phone in the house was a rotary dial model on the wall of the kitchen. When the phone rang, we had no way of knowing who was calling until we picked up the receiver and talked to the caller. It was a really big deal when Dad installed a second rotary dial phone in the basement during my teen years.

We’ve come a long way since those days. My house has phones all over the place. Most of them are cordless and all of them have pushbutton interfaces. You can buy retro rotary dial phones, but I haven’t seen such a beast in a home for a very long time.

When I built my home, few had ever heard the term “landline.” All phone lines were landlines. It wasn’t terribly many years ago that cellular phones were the exclusive domain of the incredibly rich. Those huge handsets were usually integrated with fancy automobiles. Nowadays, tiny cell phones have become so ubiquitous that many are opting to drop their landline accounts completely. Pay phones are disappearing too.

It used to be that everyone in a neighborhood had the same kind of communication technology, but that’s not the case anymore. As I look around my LDS ward, I find people that still have a single landline phone in their home (with no caller-ID), some families that have a landline and a single cell phone that is used only in exceptional cases, those with cell phones but no texting plan, people with full-fledged smartphones, and every other permutation and combination imaginable. This diversity significantly complicates ward communications.

The one commonality here is that every family in my ward has at least one telephone of some kind. They don’t always answer the things (perhaps due to caller-ID) and they don’t always respond to messages left. So even voice calling is a hit-and-miss prospect.

Texting works for some people, especially among the younger crowd. Trent Toone suggests in this MormonTimes article that it’s good to know a person’s texting policy before sending them a text message. (Some people pay for every text message sent or received while others have unlimited texting.)  I know that people worry about the loss of personal voice-to-voice interaction, but sometimes texting is the best contact method. One text can be sent to many people, but you have to be careful about generating less-than-useful spam.

As Jacob Hancock notes in this MormonTimes article, a big problem for intra-ward communications is that most ward telephone lists reflect only one phone number per family. For those that have dropped their landlines, the number listed most likely belongs to the husband’s cell phone. That isn’t very helpful if you’re trying to reach a different family member.

We can grouse about technological change, or we can just get with the program and deal with it. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in April 2007 general conference, nothing “is so bad that whining about it won’t make it worse.”

Hancock says that the church is working on updating its computer systems to handle the evolving communication paradigm. But the church’s IT folks don’t have the solution ready yet. As soon as you add more data fields to a database, you increase the difficulty of keeping the data current. Not only would it be useful to know whether a phone number belongs to a landline or a cell phone, it would also be helpful to know whether it is acceptable to send text messages to the number. Of course, that would mean even more data to gather and maintain.

In my last post, I discussed my database that tracks participation on Sacrament meeting programs. In that database, I have a phone field that is tied to a house’s address. I also have a phone field for each individual, but I don’t have multiple phone fields for each individual.

It would probably be prudent for me to redesign the database to have a separate table for tracking phone numbers. But as soon as I do that, my data maintenance job will become more complicated. My reports will need to be redesigned too, so that they show the various phone numbers at which a person might be reached. As soon as you display more than one number per person, it becomes important to list the type of number it is and the order of contact preference. It would also be nice to note whether it is OK to send a text to the number or not.

As I wrote above, it makes no sense to gripe about the difficulties inherent in tracking communication points. All you can do is roll with the punches.

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