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WAMU – Tech Tuesday – Musings on mobile phone technology

by tgposzadmin on June 3rd, 2007

I’m a little behind on my podcast listening, but I caught one just this weekend, The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Tech Tuesday, is a technology review radio show, which is recorded and available for the public as a podcast or a web download. Often, his shows depict the social aspects of technology and how society shapes technology.

A typical Tech Tuesday always includes the political or social implications of any new innovation, and explores the unexpected ways in which change creeps (or steam rolls) into our lives.

This particular show, from 5/22, had a few guests on the program, one gentleman from India and his efforts to bring internet to the public in less than metro areas of India, via wireless internet kiosks (not your typical internet access) for the farmer to provide agricultural product pricing, access to government services, for example… A second man talked about his company’s efforts in Cambodia, to bring a higher class of work to people there, via simple data entry jobs, since the work can be outsourced practically anywhere now…

This piece should remind us that our view of the “internet” resource isn’t necessarily the only one. Even mobile phone technology can be deployed differently in the 3rd world and allow different types of “applications” to be deployed. As an example, forget the “near” 100% coverage we have here in the U.S., think instead about coverage that might be “good enough” – and coupled with lower infrastructure costs as technology has improved, and you have a fixed-wireless phone system that doesn’t rely on mobility so much, but does indeed provide basic telephone service to a rural area, since to provide “real” fixed telephone service, with fiber, copper wires, and traditional telco switches is just too costly, indeed it’s unreasonable to consider in this environment.

Myself, I’m reminded about a deployment of SMS related technology I did for my last company. The scene: an African tribal herdsman. The problem: Moving his herd of cattle from one place to another. Why? Because of hoof and mouth disease, all cattle movement is strictly controlled by the government. The herdsman has to go to a government office, fill out some paperwork, come back the next day for his permit to go from point A to point B with his cattle.

These native African herdsmen are fiercely independent, often they’d rather distrust the government, but the hoof and mouth disease problem is endemic in parts of Africa and the situation does need to be improved upon.

The solution? My company worked with one of the local mobile phone companies to deploy an SMS based forms system that interconnected the farmer with the government. The technology was off the shelf web servers, so that “SMS applications” could be deployed with simple HTML tags in the basic web pages of a web app that already existed. What we added was a network based browser that rendered this HTML, on one side, and interfaced to the mobile provider’s SMS gateways. The special HTML tags identified specifically the text that was meaningful in the SMS messages, whereas the remaining text would be worthwhile to the typical computer screen.

So, how did this all work? Like this…

  • The farmer decides he wants to move his herd. He knows where they are currently and he knows where he wants to go…
  • He pulls out his mobile phone (and they do have and use them there) and sends a text msg to a specific number, for the government’s form for cattle movement.
  • In response, he receives a “fill-in the blanks” msg, which he replies to, which allows him to fill-in the info that the government needs: name, number of cattle, that sort of thing. He sends it back, and receives a separate SMS msg, with an authorization code.
  • The tribesman begins moving his herd.
  • He comes to a government checkpoint, shows his SMS authorization code on his phone to the guard at the checkpoint, the guard sends the code number to the app on his own phone, and now the herdsman can proceed to the next checkpoint.
  • Continuing on his journey, the herdsman repeats the checkpoint process with each guard he has to proceed through.
  • Arriving at this destination, the herdsman sends his own authorization code back, just as the guards have been doing at each checkpoint, which closes out the herdsman’s cattle movement

So, the government gets to monitor herd movement within their country, the herdsman didn’t have to go to any government office, he simply used a tool he already had (his mobile phone). Even the guards didn’t have any paperwork to fill-out and submit. Everyone makes out for the better.

The interesting thing is this was deployed about 10 years ago, with existing SMS technology. Today, people might be thinking about web browsers in the phones, and a traditional web app or a mobilized web app, but the point is – for this service, we used an existing web app, modified HTML slightly, and inserted our network server, which

  • rendered the pages, as if it were a user,
  • extracted the special SMS tags and pertinent textual data,
  • pushed this data onto the SMS gateway,
  • upon response from the gateway, the text from the herdsman is formatted
  • the HTML response is sent back to the application

No “special” phones or WAP browsers, just plain ole text msging.

Now don’t ask me about how the herdsman would charge his phone, while I suspect he had a solar charger, I never did find that out for sure.

From → Misc, Servers, Telephony

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