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.

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Of Medicine and Broadband

With services like bewell.com and americanwell.com popping up, it looks as if our interactions with doctors and medical professionals will increasingly take place on the Internet.

Whether its through the Facebook-like groups of BeWell (referred to as “expert-guided communities”), or through a web camera (i.e., the “virtual house call” pitched by American Well), the quality of a person’s Internet connection may one day soon have a meaningful impact on the quality of medical information that person receives.

These new interactive medical services follow the unveiling of other web-based health services from both Google and Microsoft.

As health care services become increasingly web-based, the problem of the digital divide generally, and the broadband divide specifically, will become more acute.

This is an area where we could use some original thinking, and some fresh ideas. Public policy leaders need to step up on this one – it ain’t going to fix itself.

Building a Custom Stats Monitor for Voxeo Prophecy

I do a lot of work on the Voxeo Prophecy platform. Pretty regularly, I have a need to check and see how many ports are in use, or how many active sessions are currently running on a Prophecy machine.

Prophecy has some nice features that make checking these stats pretty easy. You can get a view of currently running sessions by pointing your browser at sessions_10 on either the CCXML or VoiceXML control port — for example, if you want to check CCXML sessions you would point to http://prophecy_ip:9999/sessions_10. There is also another utility that provides a wealth of information on what is happening on your Prophecy server — stats_10.

This utility is particularly useful because you can pass in query string parameters and customize the information that is returned, as well as the format that it is rendered in. Pointing your browser to http://prophecy_ip:9999/stats_10?type=counters&format=xml gets you a list of currently utilized ports and running CCXML sessions in a compact XML document. As handy as this is, because its browser-based, you have to keep hitting refresh to get updated stats from your server. Since this can be inconvenient, I decided to whip up a small AJAX-powered stats monitor for Voxeo Prophecy.

Requirements / Considerations:

  • You’ll need to download the xajax PHP class library to use this utility. I downloaded 0.5 RC 2 Full — you can do this by entering the following at the Linux command line: wget http://xajaxproject.org/download/0.5_rc2/xajax_0.5_rc2_full.zip. Extract these files to a folder where PHP scripts can be executed.
  • Before running this monitor, you’ll want to make sure that you can run xajax applications — do this by testing out the helloworld.php sample in the xajax/examples directory. I developed this app on Ubuntu 8.10. It should run just fine on Windows — if you want to run this on the same machine as Prophecy you should use a separate PHP installation, not the one that comes bundled with Prophecy.

Get the Source Code:

You can get the code for the custom stats monitor here.

When downloaded, extract the files to the same directory where you placed your xajax files. Open up the file called voxeo.php in an editor and modify the configuration options as needed. The value of $interval determines how frequently an AJAX callback will be made to your Prophecy server to check stats. You will want to change the value of $prophecyHost to the IP address of your Prophecy server. You can add stats items to the $counterNames array if you want to check more than the basic level of stats. Save and close this file when finished.

Open up the voxeo.php file in your web browser. When the page loads, the stats monitor is not yet started — click “Start Monitor” to engage. When you make a test phone call to your Prophecy server, you will see the numbers change for ports and sessions.

Prophecy 9 is on the horizon, and the good folks at Voxeo will likely be adding all sorts of eye candy that will make monitoring your Prophecy server a snap. Still, it is nice to know that the Prophecy platform is open enough to support custom utilities that can help manage your server.

WebAnywhere: A Web-Based Screen Reader

Just happened upon a story from the University of Washington News describing a project to build a web-based screen reader — called WebAnywhere — to allow the visually impaired to surf the web.

Most people have heard of or even tried screen readers like Jaws. The problem with software like Jaws is that it must be installed and run on the computer a visual impaired person is using. This can be inconvenient if someone is traveling, or is otherwise away from home or work.

WebAnywhere is different in that it is web-based, so there is no software to install. Any computer can be made more accessible to the visually impaired as long as it has a browser. The software that runs WebAnywhere is available for review from Google Code.

This sounds like an outstanding project — I’ll have to pull the source code down and take a look at it.

Wireless Philadelphia May Survive After All

It looks like a group of local investors may pick up where EarthLink left off.

This is good news, but more work is still needed to complete the network:

“We’re not anywhere near close to delivering a full service yet,” said local entrepreneur Richard A. Rasansky, who is on the board of the new company [that will take over the network]. “The network is not completed. It’s not so much a problem with how it’s built, it’s that it’s currently unbuilt.”

Wireless Philadelphia: is the dream over?

Disappointing news from the Wireless Philadelphia project – it seems EarthLink is throwing in the towel. The latest statement from the Wireless Philadelphia CEO is more encouraging:

Wireless Philadelphia is utterly steadfast in its determination to extend internet access to all members of the community, and we intend to do everything in our power to continue the momentum generated by WP in support of Digital Inclusion.

I hope that the goals of this project can still be achieved, but it ain’t looking good right now. 😦

Credit where credit is due

It’s nice to see that the State of Delaware is still receiving acclaim for the Access Delaware project that I helped start several years ago with Lt. Governor John Carney. After it’s initial launch, the project was selected as an award winner in the Accenture/MIT Digital Government Award program — one of the first national technology awards the State of Delaware ever received.

Thanks to a core group of dedicated programmers in the Department of Technology and Information, and the support of forward-thinking public officials like John Carney, the project continues to evolve and improve.

It’s interesting to go back now and listen to an interview I gave when the program was first launched. I’m amazed, and very proud that the program is still being recognized. Now, if only more governments would follow this lead… 😉