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Tech Trends: Come discuss at Digital Capital Week!

I will be discussing the tech trends from 2011 and looking forward to what 2012 holds for us with a fine group of panelists during DCWeek. Our panel still has some free tickets left - RSVP at Want to get in the action early? Join our thread over at Quora. My fellow panelists are Nisha Chittal, Colin Delany, Bob Fine, and Bonnie Shaw, and Roshani Kothari is going to have the arduous task of wrangling us as our moderator. Read more about the event at DCWeek:
Rebuilding cell networks in Libya Jon Fri, 04/22/2011 - 10:14
Via MobileActive, I got to reading this article at the WSJ. Unsurprisingly, the Libyan cell network is built to be Tripoli-centric, "giving him and his intelligence agents full control over phones and Internet" according to the WSJ. If that's not a stark reminder of the challenges of using SMS and mobiles in human rights work that I've been concerned about, I don't know what is. The brilliant response here has been to wrest control over segments of the Libyan mobile network. This has taken some outside effort, external government support, and massive funding - it is, at least for now, successful at creating an independent domestic network with limited external access:
A team led by a Libyan-American telecom executive has helped rebels hijack Col. Moammar Gadhafi's cellphone network and re-establish their own communications. The new network, first plotted on an airplane napkin and assembled with the help of oil-rich Arab nations, is giving more than two million Libyans their first connections to each other and the outside world after Col. Gadhafi cut off their telephone and Internet service about a month ago. That March cutoff had rebels waving flags to communicate on the battlefield. The new cellphone network, opened on April 2, has become the opposition's main tool for communicating from the front lines in the east and up the chain of command to rebel brass hundreds of miles away.

mHealth: Tending the garden of 1000 flowers

At #mHS10, we heard funders talking time and time again for letting "1000 flowers bloom" in mHealth pilots, and programs talking about pilots leading to more pilots. This was fine the first few times it came up, but by the last day, the syndromes of the pilot-itis pandemic were clear. FlowerThis reeks of desperation. The funders are not finding clear winners in their projects, and the various implementers are casting about with local solutions that they either can't or won't scale, trying to find an idea so powerful that it will break through this lock. We need to focus more energy on innovations which are dealing with core problems in health and in using mobiles for health, and thin out some of these 1000s of flowers. The soil is too fertile for this approach, and the many duplicated, repeated pilots will crowd out new, creative and gamechanging ideas. We need to move past these more basic mhealth applications - reminder messages for drug adherence, pre-natal checkups and so on are great - but simply using a new communications method to address an old problem. Let's replicate and scale those to more sub-sectors and keep them funded, but let's not dwell on them. On scale -- this is not something that's eay to do. There are many barriers in mobile and in health, from cultural concerns to be dealt with which limit scaling of health projects, to many technical ones inhibiting good mobile projects from being re-implemented in other regions. There are many good meta-solutions to the technical side - open data standards and open source, both praised often at MHS10, are paving the way by creating a variety of tools which can work together. We need more. The platforms and networks need to become more open. Projects have been able to thrive where they rely on the lowest common denominators in phones - voice and SMS. Even still, a lack of global short-codes and improved cross-carrier and cross-border functionality hinders scaling. Beyond voice and SMS, it becomes a difficult maze of twisty passages dealing with the various featurephone systems, vendor lock-downs, and even more capable smartphones, which are even more locked down and difficult to get custom applications loaded. The building blocks are there -- open source tools and open data standards abound; focusing on those is a big first step. Banding projects together, connecting at events like the mHealth summit, and increased best-practice sharing is another. Not being shy about where the real blockers are to scalable solutions is the elephant in the room. Do we need to engage the GSMA and ITU to work on better cross-connection solutions among the many global connectivity providers? Cell phone manufacturers to improve standardized access to their devices? These aren't the low-hanging fruits, but they might be the keys.

Social Change - to go, please

Cross-posted at the FrontlineSMS Blog The recent Technology Salons have been on local and sectoral implementations of mobile technology in development. Mobile is hardly "new" anymore, but we're seeing increasing tools for peer-to-peer communications and decentralized development. Instead of SMS reporting for mHealth metrics or election observation (both amazingly powerful), we have Ushahidi and a team of volunteers from colleges and Haitian diaspora communities across the world saving lives in Haiti after the earthquake by synthesizing and translating reports from on the ground into actionable, trustable pieces of information. Instead of training-and-visit agricultural extension work, we have tools like Patatat which are building group email lists through SMS messaging, enabling farmers (or anyone) to collaborate on their work, market prices, crop diseases, and so on - with increasingly little need for anything at the center. And of course there's twitter, which, while still "centralized" as a website, enables un-mediated communication amongst basically anyone in the world with a cell phone and a good text-messaging plan.

Mobile Social Networks

Something is still missing in the world of mobiles and social networks. I strongly believe in the power of social networks in development, be they online or offline. They create communities of practice from the local to the global level, which promotes better understanding of what a best practice is versus what is just a good theory that doesn't reliably work. You also have amazing, unprecedented access through mobile phones and SMS. But there's nothing solidly connecting the two (unless I'm missing something?)

Blue-skying Mobile Apps: Common Forms

I missed the recent Technology Salon on Mobiles for Development (I was kind of busy with Global Youth Service Day), and was already scheduled to make it to the Mobile Active m4Change unconference the next week.

A prime outcome of the Tech Salon was a challenge from Vodafone's Terry Kramer:

Mobile network operators (MNO) want increase revenues and market share by expanding into rural areas, and see partnerships with the development community as a key market entry strategy. Specifically, Vodafone is looking to the development community for key applications that solve a common need for many and can be scaled into commercial activities.

Here's my response, an idea that's been rattling around in my head for quite some time.

A common "form" application to send out encoded questions and receive back answers via SMS.

The core would be an agreed-upon encoding/compression format for sending form questions and receiving the answers via SMS.

This standard could be coded to using existing outreach tools like EpiSurveyor, FrontlineSMS, RapidSMS, and the like. It would have a "server-side" component where you could set up a form, specify the answer types (y/n (or t/f), multiple choice, very-short-answer?) and compose the SMS messages to send.

The key (and the hard part) is having this app as common as a calculator tool on deployed phones. The app would capture the coded SMS form, present it as a user-friendly form, and take the answers and reply (again via SMS) using as few outbound messages as possible.

Anyone with an SMS-sending tool could code questions and use their tool to distribute them; and any phone with this (pre-installed) app could "decrypt" the compacted form and present it to the user.

This would make data collection much smoother, eliminate distribution of questionnaires and codesheets prior to each new questionnaire, and improve data quality.

I see immediate applications in election obersvation, human rights monitoring, and health field-worker reporting, not to mention census, and even for-profit ventures for immediate customer satisfaction surveys, more complex SMS-voting (imagine what BravoTV would do with this were it widely deployed!)

After the SMS honeymoon? (Updated)

Check out some updates -- props to @MobileActive!

During the last breakout at the Mobile for Change (#m4change in twitter, a good writeup by Development Seed's Will White: Recap of Mobile Tech 4 Social Change BarCamp ) open conference yesterday, we began to get into some of the problems that had been bugging me all day.

During NDI's Ian Shuler's presentation on the state of Mobile in Development (especially in Election Observation) I twittered:

what happens when govt catches up, blocks sms during unrest? we need p2p networks #m4change
9:38 AM Apr 29th from web

Now that I'm not constrained by 140 characters, let me unpack that a bit.

Repressive governments are getting smarter. They've enjoyed the ability to censor, control and manipulate traditional media for quite some time now, and have been caught blindsided by the Internet and cell phones. We cannot hope or expect that to continue. We've seen the first, blunt reactions to this - shutting down SMS service during elections to prevent the spread of information, and during the #pman protests SMSs were severely throttled. In #pman the protesters were able to continue exchanging information on their cellphone's data connections. I wouldn't count on that working the next time around.

But it's unlikely that SMS would be totally cut off in a country for more than a few days around a big event, so why worry so much?

Because of course shutting SMS down temporarily is just the blunt response of a government that hasn't had time to do anything more devious.

Forcing all SMS messaging to run through a series of scans for keywords, tracking political dissidents using SMS to spread the word, and taking actions against people based on these types of logs would destroy the use of mobile phones - not only in the spread of democracy, but also in any form of activism that was not strictly in line with the current regime.

Due to the centralized structure of cell phone systems, scenarios that make China's Great FireWall look irrelevant are pretty easy to imagine even for a regime without much tech savvy.

So -- how can we fix this?

Encryption on cell phones has two big problems - it's not built in on most handsets and it's very clear that you're trying to hide something, which is just as bad as doing that something. Unless encryption was built into the protocols and implemented by default, it's useless -- and even if it were implemented, the telco could probably still access the texts, so we're no better off than we were before. Sure, end-to-end encryption would fix that, but key exchange and signing via SMS? I'd like to see a workable RFC on that.

I think the most valuable solution is a peer-to-peer mesh network that can carry voice, SMS, and data on it. The downsides of these is that their range can be extremely limited by lack of density of users.

Turns out there are mesh phones out there, a Swedish startup called TerraNet (previously mentioned on MobileActive) turns capable phones into mesh nodes:

The technology is simple: Terranet outfits a special Erricson phone with peer-to-peer wireless networking ability. In its pure form, there is no need for base stations, antenna installations or infrastructure. With this phone, a user can call and text anyone at no cost within two kilometers, or up to 20 kilometres in a mesh network.
(Via MobileActive

The trick of course is getting these mesh phones (or adding mesh capability into enough existing phones) rolled out in enough numbers to make a difference. There are some clear use-cases in development for disaster-prone areas, areas without telco service (they could be a great business model for micro telcos), or as a low-cost phone + data connectivity tool.

However, there are quite a few barriers against this. The price point is higher than your basic cell phone, and you have to have rapid local adoption for it to even work. From a business side, it must fight against the existing install base of cell phones (and their providers). The business plan for the network is itself hamstrung by the very power of the technology - in a mesh network, how do you charge for calls that you don't know about?

If however the mesh technology could be embedded on new phones as part of a disaster-mitigation scenario (even in the US, cell networks are notoriously overloaded during crisis), a powerful technology would find its way into daily usage that was immune to many of the censorship and oppression problems of centralized communications networks.

There's a project Comm.Unity at MIT's Media Lab that runs as a software piece on top of cells, PDAs, and laptops:

Comm.unity runs on mobile phones, PDAs, and regular old laptops and PCs, allowing them to easily communicate with each other and build networks of interactions for their users without the need for any centralized servers, coordination, or administration.

There's also Fluid Nexus which is an application for mobile phones that is primarily designed to enable activists to send messages and data amongst themselves independent of a centralized cellular network

Fluid Nexus requires bluetooth, and for people to be within bluetooth range (though it is a store-and-forward style system), so it has its own limitations, but at the same time could be a powerful tool in the right situations.

It's a start.

Micro Telcos - Business Models for Rural Access?

This month's Technology Salon approached last-mile connectivity problems from an entrepreneurship standpoint. What are the barriers to creating small, possibly local-only telcos using various technologies, and how can those scale through investment, international development assistance, or franchising?

The on-the-ground situation is good connectivity in urban and peri-urban areas, often including land-line support as well as mobile coverage. As you get further out into rural areas, coverage dwindles; without populations large enough to support (currently) the cost of installation and maintenance of a cell tower, the large firms are not interested. The telecom industry is often dominated by 3-4 large companies, often heavily regulated and/or in cahoots with the government.

What's Next

Tonight's ICT4D meetup asks the question, "What's Next?" While it's always risky to predict the future, I think the groundwork for the next decade is largely stable. Mobile is globally today where the Internet was in the US in the early nineties -- if you wanted access, you could find it. It might be difficult, costly, or shared, but it was available. Think of the changes in the Internet over the past decade and a half -- we've moved from a largely text-only interface with gopher, newsgroups and email being the key players to the web, and now the rich, ajax-y web 2.0. I think a similar growth could happen (and already is, to some extent) in the global mobile market. As access to mobile networks spread, the possibility to have more and exciting applications filter down to even the cheapest handsets becomes more likely. Imagine a simple survey app that received, presented, and then encoded, compressed and encrypted questions and answers through SMS automatically, instead of the laborious current manual encoding used in election monitoring. That alone, enabled on the basic cell phone platforms would revolutionize data reporting by reducing training time while also improving accuracy, human rights protections (via encryption), and reducing the opportunities for falsified data to be put into the system.
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