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Speakeasy: Leveraging Mobile Phones and Open Source Software to Connect Neighbors
Emily Gertz, 6 Oct 05

Speakeasy LogoImagine being newly arrived in a country or community where your local connections are marginal, and you don't speak the language. What once seemed like the simplest task -- getting a prescription medication at a drugstore, for instance -- is instead a reminder of your outsider status, as you try to communicate complex information with the pharmacist across the language barrier. Maybe you want to just give up and leave, even though that also means leaving behind the medicine you really need to have.

Now imagine taking out your mobile phone, making a call, and connecting right there and then with a trusted interpreter -- someone who lives in your own neighborhood and speaks both your language and the pharmacist's. You tell the interpreter what you need and pass the phone to the pharmacist, who listens and replies, and then take it back so the interpreter can tell you what was said. Back and forth, until the transaction is complete.

Speakeasy is an intriguing project that leverages the connective potential of mobile phones to help immigrants in Boston's Chinatown community break through just this sort of divide. It's a software-enabled telephone call center staffed by multilingual community volunteers. Newcomers to Chinatown who are not fluent in English can call the service and connect with someone from the neighborhood who can provide immediate language interpretation, answer questions, and offer advice.

Speakeasy was developed by TxtMob creator Tad Hirsch, in partnership Jeremy Liu of Boston's Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC), for use in Boston's Chinatown. The system employs a relatively small amount of specialized technology called Asterisk, an open source PBX (a private branch exchange -- essentially a multi-line phone system running on a computer server), as well as other open source software including Linux, PHP and mySQL. When a caller dials in to Speakeasy, the Asterisk server answers the phone, runs callers through a sequence of voice menus to select either Mandarin or Cantonese, searches in the database for an available volunteer, or "Guide," who speaks that language, and then routes and connects the call to the Guide. All the telephony is accomplished via Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), which helps keep costs low --incoming calls are free and outgoing cost two cents a minute.

Guides -- usually second and third generation members of Boston's Chinese community, who might otherwise have little contact with or understanding of the experiences of newcomers to the community -- register with Speakeasy using a web-based application, entering data including their phone number, and the languages they speak. They can see when others guides are available and schedule their own shifts accordingly.

While any phone can be used to both make and answer Speakeasy calls, the system's design has been geared to take advantage of both the high adoption rate and flexibility of mobiles. They make it easier for callers to contact Speakeasy when and where they need assistance, and for the Guides to take calls from wherever else they need to be -- at work, at home, running errands. With Asterisk at its technological heart, Speakeasy makes use of a technology already well-distributed in the community -- mobile phones -- to build upon Chinatown's human heart: the existing skills and expertise that neighbors can employ to help each other.

Speakeasy developed thru a series of conversations between Hirsh -- a PhD candidate in the Smart Cities group at the MIT Media Lab, and rumored to be associated with the arts collective Institute for Applied Automony -- and Liu, after the two met at an MIT workshop on technologies for community development. Hirsch and Liu wondered what kind of innovative uses they could find for mobile phones -- which are ubiquitous in the Chinatown immigrant community -- that would both provide an immediate service to immigrants (some of the most vulnerable and isolated community members) and others in the community with low fluency in English, while also enabling progress on Chinatown's urban and community development challenges.

According to ACDC, the 5,100-odd residents of Chinatown -- at 42 acres, the most densely populated part of Boston -- are nearly all Asian, and primarily first generation immigrants. They're largely working class, with a median annual household income of about $9,000, well below that of the average Boston household's $12,350. The poverty rate is 28 percent -- 10 percent higher than the general population. Few have higher educational degrees. Businesses are often small, family-owned, and operating on the edges, outside of the mainstream economy. Many folks get into business by starting with what's most familiar -- in the case of Boston's Chinese community, that's often restaurants and other food-related businesses -- leading to a lack of local economic diversity that can undercut the success of many enterprises.

Many newcomers have very limited English skills, and no social or familial networks to rely on, sometimes arriving from countries and societies where getting involved in what might be considered fairly mild public action here -- like asking for assistance from a government agency -- can bring undesired attention and risk. Combine that with local, state and federal social and economic services systems that tend towards complexity, and often-opaque federal immigration rules, and the result is a large number of people who acutely need both access to social services and community support, and who are most afraid to reach out for them.

Part of Liu and Hirsch's long-term strategy behind Speakeasy is to create a system that inherently weds technology to building social networks that connect people in the community to each other, and that can be leveraged for other kinds of community development activities in the future -- from political campaigns, to fundraising, to other kinds of mutual aid projects.

Txtmob, Hirsch's earlier creation, was purposely designed to work well with minimal staffing, and to let users drop on and off the network at will and anonymously -- a useful feature for political activists and street protestors seeking to maintain a low profile during the highly charged days of last year's Democratic and Republican National Conventions, when Txtmob was first deployed. By contrast, Speakeasy's development has involved a significant amount of program design and development dedicated to recruiting, training, and scheduling of the Guides -- themselves often working class Chinese-Americans whose lives involve lengthy workdays, evening shifts that conflict with most neighborhood meetings, and family commitments.

A busy, over-extended working adult might hesitate to devote a block of hours on a precious free weeknight or weekend to answering phone calls in a church basement or community center, no matter how much they care about helping out in the neighborhood. Speakeasy can lace together such a network of volunteers via mobile phones, allowing them to schedule shifts and take calls when and where it works best for them.

Hirsh says,

The insight that Jeremy and I had was that there are lots of people in the neighborhood who speak several languages. They're familiar with the social services because they've been clients of them. And they've already demonstrated interest in helping the community. The resources were all there for us try to move beyond the traditional model of dependency in which at-need communities petition outside entities for resources. We decided to try to draw upon the skills and expertise present within the community.

Once Hirsh and Liu decided upon the Speakeasy strategy, the design and development process began in earnest. Hirsch created a Speakeasy prototype using open source software, Asterisk in particular, and wrote a handful of custom software libraries. On the community development side, they went into Chinatown to recruit guides for the system, and developed a training curriculum.

For a two-week test run of Speakeasy in the spring of 2004, about 60 Guides were recruited from ACDC's constituent network -- members of the Chinatown neighborhood who were already involved in some manner of community work. Roughly 200 users -- all newcomers to the community who spoke little to no English -- were recruited from English language classes for Cantonese and Mandarin speakers being offered by Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. Cards with Speakeasy's phone number and a brief description in Mandarin and Cantonese were created and distributed. "The role of community partners is absolutely essential" to getting immigrants to use the system, says Hirsch.

The Guides were run through potential scenarios for calls, and given handbooks containing the phone numbers of local government agencies and nonprofits. But overall, Hirsch and Liu left things open, the better to learn more about what people would do with Speakeasy on their own.

Hirsch's questions going in were: would Speakeasy work? What questions would people ask? And how would they use the system?

Outside a few repairable tech glitches, Speakeasy's technology worked. Hirsch and Liu were able to learn about the kinds the questions users would put to the system -- ranging from "very mundane stuff -- like 'what are the hours of the Asian art exhibit at the museum', to 'I'm trying to register my kid for school and I don't know where to begin,'" says Hirsch. "It's the very small stuff you miss when you're doing large scale urban development projects."

To answer questions, Guides used varied strategies besides turning to their handbooks. Sometimes they just knew the answers, and sometimes they were near a computer and could look it up on the web -- if they could read English well enough to render the web a useful resource (not always the case, suggests Hirsch, who gained a new perspective on the limitations of the seemingly boundless information resources of the Internet).

Much to Hirsch's delight, Guides also made use of another Speakeasy feature: ad hoc conference calling. This allowed the Guide to quickly initiate a call out to a third party, such as an agency, nonprofit organization, or local business -- putting the caller, the Guide and the agency or group staffer on the phone together. The Guide was able to interpret between English and the needed Chinese dialect in real time -- and also build trust with the caller.

Since this pilot project, the Speakeasy team has done another round of tech development, as well as more Guide recruitment and overall program development. They're preparing to launch a second, expanded Speakeasy in Chinatown in late October -- one that will hopefully encompass many more callers. "The potential is there for thousands of users," Hirsch says. "We want to see how the uses change, and support as wide a variety of uses as possible." Speakeasy has received some funding from the AT&T Wireless Foundation, and Hirsch hopes to identify an economic model that would make Speakeasy self-sustaining, as well as ways to launch the service in other cities.

"The technology is what enables the whole thing," says Hirsch, "but this is an example of a tech deployment that 's very tightly coupled with a longer term development strategy.

"It's serving an immediate need -- an immediate operational value -- but also, we think, has significant long term strategic potential for community empowerment."

This is the first in my series of reportbacks from September's MobileActive: Cell Phones for Civic Engagement convergence.

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Great post, Emily!

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 6 Oct 05

Emily -- thanks for this! Great project with lots of potential in all sorts of ways (from politics to community organizing) in addition to community development and service delivery. Tad is a visionary doer, as exemplified by his work with txtmob. He is also a nice guy :-) Looking forward to more reports from all the fabulous folks who were ayt MobileActive; it was great that you could come!

Best, Katrin
Aspiration: Better Tools for a Better World

Posted by: Katrin on 6 Oct 05

Excellent post, Emily. Good meeting you too.

Posted by: Taran on 6 Oct 05

Great stuff! I remember Tad from last year's RNC, and he's absolutely brilliant.

I can't wait for the next report!

Posted by: Patrick Di Justo on 6 Oct 05

Well, thanks, you all. All the stories from MobileActive are amazing, and I'm looking forward to getting more of them up here.

Taran, it was great to meet you, too! You know I'm keen to know what's happening in the Caribbean -- so let's stay in touch.

Folks should def. check out Patrick's article from the field about Txtmob during last summers fun fun hijinks in NYC during the Republican National Convention -- I've linked it in this post:

Tad and I discussed Txtmob a bit too at MobileActive -- I'll think of a way to post that as an update to my earlier post.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 6 Oct 05



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