Harnessing the Power of Mobile 'Beeping'
Parallel to my thinking about the prohibitive pricing of SMS in Africa [see my recent piece in Venture Beat], I've been thinking a lot about how to harness the pervasive and utterly free practice of 'beeping' [which takes place when a user places a call and quickly hanging up in order to send an (often) pre-arranged signal to another user such as 'come meet me now' or 'call me back'].
I'm curious to explore how 'beeping' can be used to collect information and serve as a platform for mobile services? Here are two good ideas.
'Beeping' as Instant Feedback and Poll-TakingThere is an open question as to whether mobile networks would actively push back on a high-profile 'beeping' project because it leverages their networks for free. It is important to note, however, tha most networks could probably handle over a million 'beeps' without significant use of their capacity.
Imagine you are in Pader, one of the major towns in northern Uganda. During a drought, your community receives food aid in six different locations from six different donor agencies. As you walk into town, you see a billboard that asks: which of these six locations serves you best? Each location is tied to a mobile number. To vote, you just beep the appropriate number, and the votes are tallied by a simple piece of software on a computer attached to the six different phones. [the software would check for repeat numbers, ect] The same system could be used for conducting local elections.
'Beeping' as Coded Messages
Last night, I was re-watching Ashifi Gogo's talk earlier this year on GSM Networks at the Berkman Center. In his discussion of how asymmetric encryption is leveraged for his brilliant m-Pedigree project, he mentions that the next generation of such services may involve 'beeping.' For example, imagine you are planning your drive to work across central Accra in the morning and you wonder how much traffic is on the road. Gogo asks what if there was a short-code you could beep, and get a coded beep in response- one beep means the road is free of traffic; two beeps mean you better walk.
The platform itself seems like something both development practitioners and entrepreneurs should be intensely interested in. What other 'beeping' innovations are possible?