Tuesday, April 12, 2011

If someone tweets in rural Haiti, and they're using a feature phone, does anyone read it?

During the recent Tsunami in Japan, the internet infrastructure upon which Twitter and Facebook (including their mobile equivalents) are based, was taken offline in eastern Japan near the epicenter of the earthquake.  However, social networks that were built on the widely distributed feature phones in Japan continued to transmit messages over GPRS (General Packet Radio Service).  As a result, 80% of short message communication during the disaster was made on the social network maintained by Gree, a leading social network which is embedded on these feature phones distributed in Japan. *

This brought me to realize that other internet initiatives in markets dominated by feature phones could leverage similar approaches to get communities onto the web grid.  Most networks in the developing world are feature phone-dominated.  Though they may lack the GPRS network of Japan, they do have the ability to distribute bundled apps pre-loaded into the widely distributed low cost mobile handsets.  Though these networks are mostly dominated by voice and SMS messaging, there is a potential to use data hubs that would synchronize with web-based servers to deliver some compelling internet based applications in these markets.  (For an example of this SMS-based concept see Mobile-XL)

Last year I had the opportunity to consider this problem with Random Hacks of Kindness which hosted a hackathon around the United Nations Global Pulse initiative.   Our challenge was to consider how current internet technology could reach markets like rural regions of Haiti post-quake for monitoring and dispatching disaster-relief initiatives.  The motive was to enable commercial tool sets run by for-profit businesses like Twitter and Facebook to be used in markets currently beyond their reach.  Naturally its easy for the most privileged in any society to use social communication tools to reach out for help.  The voices that sometimes most need to be heard though are those without access to these tools.  If we find a way for communities that have access to feature phones to "get on the internet grid" by connecting SMS gateways to web servers that then render these messages into internet protocol, the for-profit community can go the rest of the way in developing the algorithms necessary to watch for trending signals that deserve attention from aid organizations. 

During South by Southwest Interactive convention Kate Schnepel of WildlifeSOS presented on how their organization is using a cumbersome workaround to just this problem.  Kartick Satyanarayan (pictured above with one of his rescued animals) is their main activist on the ground in India, often dispatched in parts of the country only accessible via voice and SMS communications.  He therefore sends updates from the field via SMS to someone with Internet connection who in turn tweets the update in real-time.  It's easy to see why it would be valuable for those in rural areas to have access to distributed SMS gateways that would obviate the need for this to be a two person task. 

Once we solve the hurdle of getting the signal to the web, which is purely technical, the matter of looking for signals from those in need of aid in the developing world can be addressed separately.  For example, the UN Global pulse hopes for a platform that could pick up mentions of the word "cholera" in a place that it has not been heard before which would allow its local branches to address the problem swiftly before it becomes a regional crisis.  This could be a simple signal amplification algorithm that analyses the linguistic landscape of chatter social/business communication for statistically uncommon signals.  If you apply tracking just to new phrases that come onto the scene, normalized for internet memes and news topics, then pay particular attention to those that spread the way diseases or word of disasters might, the UN Aid organizations and NGOs should then be able to respond to the crisis in a way that could prevent lasting damage to the community.

The Gree model of feature phone social networking applications on widely distributed devices, or the Mobile-XL method of providing SMS gateways to the web, may be just what under-served markets need to bring the boon of social media platforms to all regions of the globe.  As the popular revolutions in the Middle East have proven, it is crucial to have access to these advanced tools to bring attention and aid to areas of need.  Tunisia and Egypt had the benefit of these tools to amplify a signal that might otherwise have been mute to those outside their borders.  More people in the world can benefit from these amplification platforms.  The hurdle to bring it to them is not prohibitive.

*Presentation by Eiji Araki, VP of Product, Gree International speaking at the Japan Mobile Leaders Forum

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