Mar 26 2010

SMS Saves Lives

(2nd in the series “Superpowers and Science Fiction: How Mobile Devices Can Change the World“)

Text messages sent via SMS can reach their destination even when a cell network is too overloaded for phone calls to work. This knowledge can make the difference between life and death.

When Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake in January 2010, buildings collapsed and trapped people in the rubble. Some had mobile phones, but were unable to call for help. Cell phone towers had power, thanks to diesel generators at the tower sites, but the phone network was overwhelmed by the number of people trying to make phone calls. Yet people were still able to send text messages, even posting to Twitter via SMS, pleading for help to free them from the rubble.

How is that possible?

Text messages are very short. SMS stands for “Short Message Service” – each message is limited to 160 characters. Compared to the amount of data sent for a voice call, this is practically nothing. Furthermore, SMS messages are sent on the same control channel that a phone uses to stay in touch with the nearest cell tower. The phone and cell tower frequently exchange packets of data to determine when the phone has moved to another cell tower’s area. Unlike a phone call, text messages do not need to be received at exactly the same time they are sent, and the receiver doesn’t even need to be in a coverage area when the message is sent. SMS uses a “store and forward” protocol that allows message delivery to be delayed until the receiver comes back into coverage. This provides an additional layer of reliability to ensure that messages reach their destination.

Almost every mobile phone has the ability to send text messages, but the same can’t be said for phone owners. If there are people in your life who have never sent a text message, encourage them to figure it out. Take the time to help them if necessary. Be the first person to exchange messages with them. It could save their lives. At the very least, it could give them peace of mind to verify that you are safe in the event of an earthquake, wildfire, or other disaster.

Mar 19 2010

Superpowers and Science Fiction: How Mobile Devices Can Change the World

I gave a talk recently at BarCamp San Diego entitled “Superpowers and Science Fiction: How Mobile Devices Can Change the World”. There was a ton of material packed into one half hour, which I’ll be unpacking in a series of blog posts.

The event itself was an “unconference“, which is essentially a format for crowdsourcing the sharing of interesting ideas and information. Just like wikis and blogs provide a decentralized way for voices to be heard on the internet, an unconference provides an unfiltered forum for sharing ideas in person. It’s not completely decentralized – a small core group of people arranges a venue, gets donations from sponsors, and promotes the event. However, there is no process of submitting abstracts for approval and creating a schedule of talks ahead of time. Attendees are encouraged to come prepared to talk or give demonstrations. At the beginning of the weekend, there is an empty board on the wall where attendees can sign up for a time slot in one of the available rooms. There is no filtering, but the aggregate feedback of the crowd provides its own kind of direction. It’s not unusual for presentations and informal conversations to influence the content of sessions later in the weekend and at subsequent BarCamp events. The unconference phenomenon started in the technology community, but it has spread to other communities including real estate, government, and crisis response. Unconferences share the core values of decentralization and democratization that have been critical to the social success of the internet. I believe these same values will be at heart of innovative developments that use mobile developments to harness the power of communities and large collections of individuals.

You might have noticed that I use the term “mobile device” rather than mobile phone, smartphone, or superphone. That’s because I find the ability to make and receive phone calls one of the least interesting features of these devices. They can help you to save lives, topple governments, and get free beer. They can also interrupt you with automated sales pitches from companies trying to scam you. See what I mean? I know I’m not the only one with this perspective, since Linus Torvalds (inventor of the Linux operating system) recently expressed a similar opinion. There is a vast selection of applications and accessories available for mobile devices. That is in addition to the increasingly long list of features embedded into many of these devices: email clients, web browsers, GPS receivers, compasses, and even the humble clock. Take a second to think about the implications of everybody carrying a timepiece that is continuously kept accurate. Future generations will hear the phrase “synchronize your watches” in an old movie and wonder what that means.

The camera and microphone are two especially interesting components of mobile devices. They are the eyes and ears of mobile applications. The camera enables applications to recognize book covers, logos, landmarks, and other images – even without barcodes. The microphone allows people to interact naturally with applications through spoken words. Combined with GPS for location and compass for orientation, this provides mobile devices with an unprecedented awareness of our surroundings. We have only begun to tap into the potential for using these devices to augment our senses and abilities in everyday life.

Here are the slides from my presentation, if you want a sneak peek: