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Cellphones, Civic Media and Conversations with Winged Carnivores
Ethan Zuckerman, 13 Jun 08

It's the third day of MIT's Future of Civic Media Conference, and I'm still finding that I can't get the phrase "civic media" to come out of my mouth. Must be all those years of trying to sell the "citizen media" meme. Fortunately, despite the fact that we've all seen several dozen demo talks at this point, there are still truly fascinating ideas and technologies coming across the stage at the (bizarre, oddly mis-shapen, maze-like) Stata Center.

This morning's session, led by the Media Lab's Andy Lippman focuses on tools that are mobile, viral, and decentralized. The ones that caught my attention were:

- Nadav Aharony's work on peer to peer telephony, using a software platform called comm.unity. Aharony offers a demo running on Symbian mobile phones - he takes a photo and it quickly replicates itself to the comm.unity phones. That isn't all that surprising - it's basically a cool way of sending an MMS message to a group of phones..but the way it works is actually incredibly cool. Rather than sending a message to a cellphone tower, his phone finds nearby phones it is peered with, and sends the messages directly to the peers using WiFi.

Here's why this is cool: While SMS is a very powerful tool for community organizing, repressive governments have gotten very good at disabling SMS around elections to help block protests (see Ethiopia for the paradigmatic example, as well as Cambodia.) Using a centralized technology for protest is often a poor decision. Peer to peer phone communication could allow for powerful activist uses for phones with little control by central authorities.

The killer application for this tech, of course, is the ability to make voice calls phone to phone, without paying the phone company. Unfortunately, there's no incentive for hardware developers to fund this sort of research, as they're currently locked in alliances with network operators, which might mean the tech languishes in obscurity.

I'm sitting next to David Reed during this talk - which is a little like sitting next to Einstein at a lecture on relativity - and he points out that the system works best now for asyncronous voice, not synchronous voice. It doesn't actually use WiFi, but uses the radios, but addresses each phone via its MAC address rather than via IP addresses (eliminating the need for DHCP or a static IP), and uses a very simple listen, then send protocol. David, who is teaching at MIT, says that a number of MIT projects are developing the software, which currently runs on Linux/Symbian phones, but might be available on iPhones and other platforms soon.

- Dale Joachim's provocative work on broadcasting to and from public spaces, via mobile phones. Joachim is an engineer who found himself fascinated with an unusual problem: how should researchers monitor spotted owl populations, as is mandated under state and federal laws? The preferred method is to visit a forest at night, play an owl call, and listen for responses. Dale wondered whether you could just call the owls via a cellphone… an idea that’s probably appealed to anyone who’s spent a cold night in the woods listening for owl calls.

The Owl Project at MIT is building systems that use celular and VOIP technologies, as well as systems of speakers and microphones, that allow remote monitoring of owl populations in forests. But the technology might be useful for any other application where it’s helpful to both broadcast and listen over long distances. In his talk, Dale suggests that we can think of his work listening to owls as a form of cross-species civic media. Invoking the Global Voices motto - “The world is talking - are you listening?” - he wonders whether technologies like his could help us encounter the voices, the audio environment, of places in other corners of the world, crossing barriers of culture and nationality.

Talking with Dale after his talk, I find myself wanting to borrow his technology to do a very strange art piece. I’d like to install the system in places that have similar functions, in very different parts of the world. What if the system ran in Makola Market in Accra and in a shopping mall in Springfield, MA? We’d hear the ambient noise of people shopping in a very different place and a very different way - how long would it take for people to realize what they were hearing, to try to use the technology to communicate?


There's a lot of spontaneous, creative plotting taking place in the hallways at this conference. Some ideas that I've enjoyed thinking about, off the stage:

- Many, many projects that Knight funded in 2008 focus on either collecting information or transmitting information over mobile phones. This is great, as phones are an incredibly important technology for media in the developing world. But there’s no clear, single technical platform these applications can use. One of the hallway conversations has been about building content management systems that live on top of Linux-based PBX system, Asterisk. This might involve “marrying” Drupal and Asterisk, or building a rich middleware layer that would allow lots of CMS tools to access Asterisk, and place audio files into the database structures used by CMSs. There’s a faint hope that we can talk one of the MIT profs involved with the Center for Future Civic Media to teach a course on mobile phones and social activism which might focus on building out, documenting and supporting this platform.

- With programmable phone systems - interactive voice response systems - you can both collect and disseminate information in pretty creative ways. Geoff Dougherty of Chi-Town Daily News has developed a system that generates a random phone number within a Chicago exchange code, then uses Asterisk to dial it, allowing a volunteer to then read off a web-based script and collect information in a survey about police brutality. I wondered aloud whether a slightly more complicated program could do “robo-polling”, asking the basic questions and switching to a human surveyor if the questions reach sensitive materials, like reports of police brutality. (It was pointed out that a system like this would allow automated, low-cost “push polling”, delivered via VOIP - a nasty, mean political superweapon.)

This post originally ran on Ethan's excellent personal blog, My Heart's in Accra.

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