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A Small Experiment with SMS

sms.jpgFrom Strong Angel III:

This image (click on it, or here, for larger view) is a very low-tech proof of a concept: turning SMS messages into news flow. With the help of people from several companies, including Mitre, and Google, we’ve created a small demonstration of how citizen journalists could create location- and time-based data that might be useful in any number of ways.

The idea, in this case, was part of a scenario involving a major disaster. We assumed people would be telling each other what was happening in their communities and neighborhoods, and that if they could post such information straight into maps they’d have better information to work with.

So we sent SMS text messages to a gateway phone number, converted the results into a format that Google Earth could understand and ended up with a map layer showing SMS postings. With GPS-equipped mobile phones this would be trivial. Ours aren’t, so we asked senders to make the message body start with the San Diego street address, followed by two semicolons, with the rest of the message body comprising the actual information being sent from the location. (Note: it was stupid of me to use semicolons as a way of separating the message from the location; just try to find the semicolon on the average mobile phone.)

There are lots of questions about such methods. Such as: How do we prevent, or at least deal with, gaming of the system? People surely will post from locations where they are not present. Do we have to have GPS and images before we can begin to believe what people post?

Newspapers and other traditional media should be setting up such things. The potential for citizen-augmented news seems clear.

Meanwhile, we can be rolling our own. This is a long way from rocket science. I’m already contemplating some ways to use these techniques in a variety of situations and with other tools such as camera phones, and blogs. More experiments to come…

5 Comments on “A Small Experiment with SMS”

  1. #1 Ryan Sholin
    on Aug 24th, 2006 at 4:11 pm

    Lots of potential here – it’s a fantastic idea for news and CJ. One question — what if the cell towers are all down, i.e. in a hurricane?

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Aug 24th, 2006 at 4:21 pm

    It’s not just cell towers to worry about, but the entire comms infrastructure. Just beginning ot recover after the tsunami was a nightmare, according to people here who were on the ground there. (And Katrina was no picnic, either, of course.)

    It turns out that text is pretty robust as long as even a few towers stay standing and have power coming to them. I understand that was the experience in Banda Aceh (near the epicenter of the quake that set off the tsunami in 2004).

  3. #3 Mark Smithivas
    on Mar 16th, 2007 at 11:24 pm

    Dan, thanks for talking about this idea. I’ve long been waiting for a project that involves citizen journalists using cell phones and geocoding to report news as it happens. I think there are ways to limit gaming of the system. One option is to have people use cameraphones to send in an image of the location they’re at. Another is to somehow read their cell tower location using e911 info? Finally, there could be a community reputation system to surface the best content.

    I’m hoping you’ve made progress on whatever experiments you’ve mentioned in your original post. I’d love to help beta test it when it’s ready for public consumption. Or you could just get NowPublic to roll it out in their next release! 😉

  4. #4 Mark Smithivas
    on Mar 16th, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    I forgot to ask…is the system you depict in the Strong Angel project available for open source development and/or use by anyone else?

  5. #5
    on Jul 16th, 2007 at 9:24 am

    […] when and where we want, we can also add to collective knowledge (the image at left relates to an SMS experiment I worked on last summer) from wherever we are, in something close to real […]