Free Tel: Calls for Change
O'Reilly's Emerging Telephony Conference took place Feb 27-March 1 at a hotel near the San Francisco airport. Most are here from the commercial side of this growing business sector. A side conference space was set aside for Free-Tel which is a one day event to show and discuss different ways of using mobile phones for social change.
The number of participants grew from less than a dozen to 30 or so. Introductions revealed that a good proportion are coders and other technical people who have developed or are working on innovative applications. The discussion is about tools such as Asterisk (An open source PBX and telephony toolkit) and Ruby on Rails and integrating all this with web applications.
David Troy of Popvox showed a volunteer call center for making advocacy calls to voters and how the volunteer could work from home and integrate simple web use with a sophisticated back end to provide messages, live conversations explaining issues and then gather the responses and show the data in a variety of ways: as stats, on a spreadsheet, or on a Google map mashup.
Simon Roland, Direct Leap Technologies, Inc showed tools used during the Canadian elections and a system that could make about 1-1.5 millon calls per day. He refuses to have it used for telemarketing. However, he and his partner have done all sorts of other SMS and mobile phone apps: a navigable database for African ex-pats in Canada to access cultural info (oral tales and music, etc).
Becky Faith (UK) works in Brighton which has become a magnet for developers, and her outfit Tactical Technology Collective has a toolkit, NGO in a box, and is planning a conference in Nairobi on mobile telecomms in May
At lunch I sat with Anne-Louise Kardas from Sprint who's interested in developing country markets. She was sort of the token person from a carrier at our meetings. Since she is in San Jose, she is interested in the local events of our Center. Across the table was Adrian Cockroft of eBay Research labs in Campbell, California. He told me about the PayPal being in 109 countries using 15 different currencies. It is being used heavily for remittances which has been dominated by Western Union. Mexico is their biggest market for this particular service. To receive money you need a PayPal account, and so there's a question of security on shared computers in a telecenter/cybercafe.
In the afternoon I attended a session of the Homebrew Mobile Phone Club whose members are engaged in a number of hacks and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects such as the TuxPhone which is a design that could lead to an open mobile phone. Also Trolltech http://www.trolltech.com/products showed the Qtopia green phone development platform which aims at a more open phone. This is significant because most cell phone carriers have a very steep entry cost (time and money) for anyone who wants to develop.
Back at the Free-Tel session Evan Henshaw-Plath,Yahoo gave a talk about SMS (short message service) which uses a small space in the data packets to send a 140 or 160 character message. In some places (UK) SMS works on all kinds of phone, but in the US it's just in mobile networks. There are long codes like a phone number you can send or a short one like IDOL (used to vote for American Idol contestants) which are rented by the carriers for a great deal of money compared to what it costs to get a domain name.
Evan went over the kinds of developments by hackers used for social networking, sending multiple messages (for advocacy or other reasons) and some of the tools and commercial services. It is implemented in different ways in different countries. In Italy you are PAID to get messages so any free message service will have a lot of Italian accounts signing up to get more SMS traffic.
Digitaldonor talked about the complications in sending massive numbers of messages to many countries, and there's no central place where you can find all the rules and details to do this. One person showed me a rate sheet for calling mobile numbers from the U.S. and it varied from less than a penny to Buenos Aires to 35 cents in some places for a one minute call.
After dinner O'Reilly had a general session called Launchpad which gave five minutes to a handful of new companies that are doing interesting new telephony apps.StrikeIron is having a telephony mashup contest where the three finalists out of
15 entries will be decided by the conference attendees using another
new service called Mozes. Flat Planet Phone Company is selling a portable phone company for $199 (web based) and workable in 30 different countries.I wondered if the local intelligence services were able to legally surveil these new serviceds. Mysay is sort of a MySpace for voice, but it's in beta and seemed to have just gossip and Borat audio clips. Mig33 is an Australian company moving to the S.F. area and they are implementing voip on mobile phones and social networking in 200 countries. This looks really interesting.
A lot of the details were beyond me technically (even the acronyms) but clearly the combination of new programming languages like Ruby-on-Rails, the demand for new uses and simple ways to integrate voice and web services will keep these innovators busy for years to come.