Text messaging technology helped link people and information during and in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster, and texting may become part of a warning system for the Indian Ocean:
- Sanjaya Senanayake works for Sri Lankan television. The blogging world, though, might know him better by his online name, Morquendi.
He was one of the first on the scene after the tsunami destroyed much of the Sri Lankan coast. Cell phone signals were weak. Land lines were unreliable.
So Mr Senanayake started sending out text messages. The messages were not just the latest news they were also an on-the-ground assessment of “who needs what and where”.
Blogging friends in India took Mr Senanayake’s text messages and posted them on a weblog called Dogs without Borders.
….Mr Senanayake started to wonder if SMS might be put to more practical use.
“SMS networks can handle so much more traffic than the standard mobile phone call or the land line call,” he says.
“In every rural community, there’s at least one person who has access to a mobile phone, or has a mobile phone, and can receive messages.”
Half a world away, in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Taran Rampersad read Morquendi’s messages.
….He wondered if there might be a way to automatically centralise text messages, and then redistribute them to agencies and people who might be able to help.
Mr Rampersad said: “Imagine if an aid worker in the field spotted a need for water purification tablets, and had a central place to send a text message to that effect.
“He can message the server, so the server can send out an e-mail message and human or machine moderators can e-mail aid agencies and get it out in the field.”
He added: “Or, send it at the same time to other people who are using SMS in the region, and they might have an excess of it, and be able to shift supplies to the right places.”
….Last week, he sent out e-mail messages asking for help in creating such a system for Asia.
…In only 72 hours, he found Dan Lane, a text message guru living in Britain.
The pair, along with a group of dedicated techies, are creating what they call the Alert Retrieval Cache.
The idea is to use open-source software – software can be used by anyone without commercial restraint – and a far-flung network of talent to create a system that links those in need with those who can help.
“This is a classic smart mobs situation where you have people self-organizing into a larger enterprise to do things that benefit other people,” says Paul Saffo, a director at the California-based Institute for the Future. [BBC]
The Alert Retreival Cache site says this about their progress:
- What does ARC do at the moment?
In its current state, ARC accepts SMS messages from Sri Lanka and Thailand (untested), forwards them to an e-mail list and places them on a webpage.
This is a simple system that was developed in a matter of hours as a proof of concept, but may be useful for some in disaster areas.
What will ARC do in the near future?
The current plan for ARC is to recieve messages from people on the ground in the affected areas and use human moderators to take actions based on the content of the messages we recieve.
We hope to be able to respond by SMS from within the ARC web application.
What will ARC do in the distant future?
There is a school of thought that suggests a fully automated system and there is an opposing school of thought that suggests computers shouldn’t be allowed to make such important decisions about people’s lives.
We could argue this philosophical problem forever, but that wouldn’t help anyone.
We have decided to pursue the human moderator route in order to keep development times down and we will look into providing a more elegant solution in the future.
What can I do to help?
We need people on the ground in Sri Lanka and Thailand to start posting useful updates for their area, any news that may be of relevence to the outside world will be of great help to the ARC project.
We have yet to get anything from Thailand, so we are looking for contacts over there that can send us some updates and test that SMS routing from Thailand to the UK works.
Fascinating, and a great way to get involved from anywhere in the world.