The American Cell Phone Gap

A few years back, I wrote and spoke a lot about the importance of the cell phone, and the potential it has to help deliver public services and provide information from government. A lot has changed in those few years, as documented in an illuminating article published recently in the NY Times.

While the U.S. continues its lust for more powerful, sleeker and functionally dubious devices, the rest of the world continues to leverage the power inherent in the ordinary cell phone. The cell phone is at the heart of digital life in other countries, and huge numbers of people have them (or soon will):

The number of mobile subscriptions in the world is expected to pass five billion this year, according to the International Telecommunication Union, a trade group. That would mean more human beings today have access to a cellphone than the United Nations says have access to a clean toilet.

In the U.S., we continue to look to the build out of the broadband infrastructure as a way to connect those who remain unconnected. I can’t help but think (as I have for some time) that the effort to bring more people into the digital age would be enhanced by leveraging what many already have – an ordinary cell phone. There would be a number of advantages to such an approach – as noted in the NY Times article, cell phones are “cheap and shareable and easily repaired.” They also do not present the same learning curve as other digital devices, like laptops or netbooks.

So why isn’t the cell phone (and services like text messaging) as important in the U.S. as it is in other countries? I think part of the answer is that it hasn’t always been easy or efficient to build text messaging applications.

That’s changing – new services like Tropo and Twilio make it (if you’ll pardon the alliteration) trivial to build SMS apps. Certainly other services will soon follow suit, and more powerful tools for building sophisticated SMS and telephone apps will emerge.

As it continues to get easier to build more sophisticated applications, perhaps our use of these devices will change and become more aligned with the rest of the world.

As someone to whom the power of the ordinary cell phone is readily apparent, I sure hope so.


New Project: Hear Me Say This

I haven’t been blogging much of late because of a new project I have been working on — Hear Me Say This.

Hear Me Say This is a web application that uses the Sunlight Labs API, the Twitter API and the plain old telephone to empower citizens to send a message to the people that represent them in Congress.

The application uses the Voxeo Prophecy platform to support the VoiceXML and CCXML components it uses, and is hosted on a lean and mean Ubuntu web server. The back end is written in PHP 5 and uses a MySQL database. Its open source, and uses the latest open standards for developing telephone applications.

I’ve entered this application in the Sunlight Labs “Apps for America” contest — I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of telephone apps entered in this contest (the others all appear to be Asterisk-based, mine is the only CCXML/VoiceXML-based app).

Now that the project is done, and my entry has been submitted, I’m focused on adding features and spreading the word. If you’re interested in testing it out, give me a shout.

One of the other things I’d like to do in the weeks ahead is to convert the voice portion of this application to use Voxeo’s new Tropo platform. Since the back end of the app is written in PHP, and since Tropo supports writing voice apps in PHP I think it would be an interesting experiment to rewrite the existing CCXML/VoiceXML pieces as PHP/Tropo components.

I think this will provide a nice way of comparing and contrasting voice applications built using the more (ahem) traditional VoiceXML route vs. the new hotness that is Tropo.

Stay tuned!

Learning to Cook… From a Cell Phone

It’s not easy to find someone more obsessed with phones than me.

Still, even I was somewhat surprised to learn how important cell phones have become in the kitchen:

It has become the kitchen tool of choice for chefs and home cooks. They use it to keep grocery lists, find recipes, photograph their handiwork, look up the names of French cheeses, set timers for steak and soft-boiled eggs, and convert European or English measurements to American ones.

“It taught me to cook, really,” said Kelli Howell, a college sophomore in Chicago, of her Nokia phone.

Maybe that’s why everything I cook is so bad. I haven’t been using my phone. 😉

Using Twitter to Respond to Natural Disasters

Dan York of Voxeo has posted a great interview with Martin Murray of Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) detailing the utility’s response to an ice storm last month that knocked out power to a significant number of customers.

PSNH is New Hampshire’s largest electric utility, serving more than 490,000 homes and businesses throughout the state. The utility made extensive use of Twitter, YouTube and other social networking tools during the recent ice storm to provide information to customers impacted by the storm. This is yet another example of a creative use of social networking tools by a utility company.

Governments take heed! In some parts of the country (including my home state of Delaware) local governments are also the local utility company. But more than that, the creative use of social networking tools by PSNH should stand as an example of the different ways governments can improve their communications with citizens using these tools.

What a great service it would be to find out how long the wait is at the local DMV, or to find out how long the wait in the automobile inspection lanes are via Twitter. Or how about getting Tweets when trash or recycling picks up change because of a holiday?

There is enormous potential for improving the interactions between citizens and their governments using these tools. Time for more governments to get with it

Wireless Carriers to Sing Inaugural Blues?

Interesting piece in the New York Times this morning about the steps being taken by wireless carriers to prepare for the inauguration. The industry is expecting throngs of young, text messaging, picture sending, status updating supporters of Barack Obama to show up and use wireless services at unprecedented levels:
Cell Tower in DC

The largest cellphone carriers, fearful that a communicative citizenry will overwhelm their networks, have taken the unusual step of asking people to limit their phone calls and to delay sending photos. The carriers are also spending millions of dollars to temporarily and substantially upgrade their networks in Washington.

It will be interesting to see how their last minute efforts to shore up their networks in the Washington DC area hold up to the anticipated volume.

Also expected to be hammered during the inaugural: Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. Should be an interesting day!

It’s Still All About the Phone

I’ve been saying this for a while. Its all about the phone. Or, rather, it’s all about the cell phone.

More than one in six American households, or 17.5 percent, depended solely on cell phones for their telephone communications during the first half of 2008, up from 13.6 percent a full year earlier, according to survey results released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 13.3 percent of American households reportedly received all or almost all of their calls on cell phones despite having a landline telephone in their home.

Governments and other organizations that are looking to build or acquire systems to notify people using telephones should take note of this. Unlike traditional phones, cell phones offer a range of options for contacting people, aside from the standard voice conversation (SMS, e-mail, etc.). In addition, cell phones are geographically aware.

Next generation telephone notification systems will leverage the enhanced capabilities of cell phones to quickly deliver important information to citizens and taxpayers. Its time to start building them…

DC Crime Finder

The “DC Crime Finder” is a multimodal app that lets residents of the District of Columbia search for crime locations in their neighborhoods.

It uses actual crime data published by the District and supports a wide range of devices for looking up addresses and crime locations. The DC Crime Finder works with traditional desktop web browsers, mobile devices and PDAs, smart phones, iPhones, G1 phones — essentially any device that has a web browser and access to the Internet.

The application also works with ordinary cell phones and even land line phones. It sports a voice user interface (VUI) which makes it accessible from any old school telephone — even a rotary phone (if anyone in DC still has one).

This application is my submission to the Apps For Democracy contest being sponsored by the District of Columbia and iStrategyLabs.

Get the App:

The source code for the application is hosted on Google Code.

Its written in PHP and makes use of the HAWHAW PHP library by Norbert Huffschmid. This application should run equally well on Linux or Windows (I developed it on Ubuntu 8.04), but you’ll need PHP 5 with SOAP support enabled.

You’ll also need a MySQL database — the District of Columbia provides information on crime locations in a variety of formats, including real time XML-based feeds. For this application, I opted to go with data in CVS format that I imported into a simple MySQL table. One of the things the application does is to calculate the distance of crime locations from a specific address. I believe that this calculation is much more efficiently done in the context of a database, rather than trying to use a real time XML feed (there are a lot of crime locations).

The other requirement, if you want to hear this application on a standard telephone or cell phone, is to grab a copy of Voxeo Prophecy. This app should run on most mature VoiceXML/CCXML platforms, but Prophecy is by far the easiest to use and the most standards compliant. Best of all, its free to download and use. If your interested in developing other telephone applications, consider signing up for a free developer account with Voxeo.

Test the App:

I’ve set up a demo of this application in a test environment. You can look at the visual interface for this application (which uses a simulator to mimic the look and feel of a cell phone browser) by clicking here (demo is no longer active). Any mobile device with a browser can also access the application — the HAWHAW library uses some pretty slick device detection, so any device that can handle it should get standard XHTML. Smaller, or older devices will get old school WAP markup.

See what this app looks like in an older iPaq handheld device.

The beauty of this application is that when a voice browser (like Voxeo Prophecy) comes a knockin’ it gets its standard markup language – VoiceXML. If you want to hear this application on a telephone, simply dial (202) 684-7894. (demo is no longer available.)

Note: this demo is currently running in a test environment, so you may experience the occasional hiccup. A production deployment of an application like this would be much more robust.

Unfortunately, the demo is no longer active.

Why a Multimodal App?

“Multimodal Applications” provide access to services and information through different modalities. This application provides access to crime information, including the ability to search for crime incidents by proximity, through a wide range of different client devices include traditional web browsers, handheld devices and PDAs, cell phones and standard land line telephones.

Unlike other applications that are targeted to a specific platform — i.e., applications targeted to a desktop web browser, or to a specific handheld device — the DC Crime Locater can be accessed from a range of different devices. The application is accessible from sophisticated handheld devices like iPhones or G1 phones and from standard home telephones.

This Multimodal paradigm can be used to improve access to other types of government information giving citizens more choices in the devices (and modalities) they will use to consume this information.

Special Thanks!

Serious props need to go to the folks in the Office of the CTO in Washington DC. You don’t see very many government providing the kind of data that the Apps for Democracy challenge is based on. This innovative contest is a fantastic way to get development firms and independent developers (like moi) excited about building powerful applications.

Whether it’s the U.S Census Bureau, the federal Departments of Labor or Commerce, a state health agency, or a local police force, governments are the repositories of vast amount of information. Much of this data has direct relevance for our everyday lives, and can’t be obtained from any other source.

How governments make this information available for public consumption will define the debate on open government for many years to come.

I hope other governments follow DC’s example in putting on this innovative contest.