Ping: a Tool for Families and Groups to Check-in During Emergencies

It’s been a hectic 4 days in Nairobi. The Westgate siege is now over, so the President tells us, though there will be a lot of cleanup and forensics to do. Three days of national mourning start tomorrow.

The full Ushahidi team met yesterday (many virtually, of course), and we talked about many issues surrounding the Westgate siege. Not least amongst them was the fact that we had a hard time checking in with each other. And then found out that one of our team’s wife and 5 children were inside of the mall, while he was traveling out of country. They eventually got out a few hours later, to which we were relieved.

This lead us to then think through our skills and tools, and where we could be useful.

In an emergency, how do you find out quickly whether your family, your team, your friends are safe?

The Ping App - a group check-in tool for emergencies

The Ping App – a group check-in tool for emergencies

How About a Way to “Ping” Your Group?

There was a consistent problem in every disaster that happens, not just in Kenya, but everywhere. Small groups, families and companies need to quickly check in with each other. They need to “ping” one another to make sure they’re okay. It has to be something incredibly simple, that requires little thinking to use. People have been doing some stuff in this space in the past, the best like “I’m Ok” are focused on smartphone users, but we have a need to make it work for even the simplest phones. Our goal is to have this available for anyone globally to use.

“Ping” is basically a binary, multichannel check-in tool for groups. The idea is that families and organizations could use this for quick headcounts on how everyone was, then use it as an on-ramp into a Red Cross missing persons index or something like Google’s People Finder app.

We’re putting the first version of it up at – here’s how it works:

  • You create a list of your people (family, organization), and each person also adds another contact who is close to them (spouse, roommate, boy/girlfriend, etc).
  • When a disaster happens, you send out a message for everyone to check-in. The admin sends out a 120 character message that always has “are you ok?” appended to the end.
  • This goes out via text message and email (more channels can be added later).
  • The message goes out three times, once every 5 minutes. If there is a response, then that person is considered okay. If no response, then 3 messages get sent to their other contact.
  • We file each response into one of 3 areas: responded (verified), not responded, not okay.
  • Every message that comes back from someone in that group is saved into a big bucket of text, that the admin can add notes to if needed.
Ping Notes, Features

Ping Notes, Features

Ping Architecture - rough draft

Ping Architecture – rough draft

Yesterday we quickly wireframed out a list of needs, some design basics, and an architecture plan (images above), got a rough product going on it (code is on Github). We now need to make it look better, so some designers are working up some stuff to make it work well on both phones and computers.

Mockups of the Ping app, still undergoing some design tweeks

Mockups of the Ping app, still undergoing some design tweeks

Final touches are to add in:

  • Account creation, we’re using our CrowdmapID tool for this, since it’s already out
  • Message “send” page
  • Archive old campaigns feature
  • Wire into text messaging service (Nexmo or Twilio), and then testing it out internally
  • Designing it so it looks good (responsive design, so it works on mobiles and PCs)

If you’d like to help out, jump on the Github repo, and get in touch with us about what you can do. What we have here is a minimum viable product (MVP) right now, open source, so anyone can make it better by branching the code and adding in features, etc.

Finally, a HUGE thank you to the people who have been burning the midnight oil to make this all happen in 24 hours:

@udezekene (visiting from Nigeria)
@EmiliaMaj (visiting from Poland)
@gr2m (visiting from Germany)
@Dkobia (Ushahidi)
@LKamau (Ushahidi)
@bytebandit (Ushahidi)
@DigitalAfrican (Ushahidi)

A West African Mobile Hacking Event

There’s generally a communications wall between francophone and anglophone Africa. Both sides could use greater exposure to the other.

It’s no surprise to see a bunch of tech companies and community members coming together for a 24 hour hackathon on September 24th in four French speaking countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Senegal and Cameroon.

What’s great to see, is that there are 6 tech labs/hubs that are supporting it in these countries:

Côte d’Ivoire : AKENDEWA
Cameroun : APPSTECH

Hardware Hacking Garages: hardware and accessories innovation

As many of you know, I’m the founder of the AfriGadget blog, and one of the organizers for Maker Faire Africa, which happened in Ghana last year and Kenya this year. Though I pretty much only build software apps and services, I’ve got a soft spot for hardware hacking. Last week I put an idea into the website for this month’s Open Innovation Africa Summit taking place upcountry in Kenya, put on by Nokia, infoDev and Capgemini. This is that idea.

I’m enthralled by software, apps and platforms. It’s the low hanging fruit with very few barriers to entry, it’s the place where a great deal of innovation is happening and where money is being made. However, when we look at innovation in Africa, we often overlook the hardware – yes, the handsets, but also the other devices and accessories that local engineers (trained/untrained) can get their hands dirty with. Sometimes this is pure fabrication, other times it’s hacking existing products, many times it’s a mixture of both.

We’re already seeing stories of the way guys are doing everything from creating their own vehicle security systems, home security systems, distance-triggered food preparation and even fish catching alerts. That’s with no support at all. What happens when you provide a space to make it faster, better and possibly an avenue to manufacturers and funders?

[Image above: a porridge making machine by a Malawian inventor, triggered by an SMS.]

Maker: Simon Kimani from Butterfly Works on Vimeo.

[Video above: Kenyan inventor creates an “SMS House Automation System” where you can give a command via the phone to  perform tasks, including turning on/off the TV, Lights.]

Hardware Hacking Garage
Ever since we put up the iHub (Nairobi’s Innovation Hub) this year, I’ve been thinking a lot more about a physical space as its own platform. We deal with the software side of the web and mobile innovation. We don’t have a parallel space for doing the same with hardware. I’m talking about a tinkering, micro-fabrication and engineering environment. This would require some space, basic tools and a few specialized electronics and computers to make it work.

Here are just a few areas (If you have any more ideas, put them in the comments and I’ll add them below):

  • Power hacks = using dynamos, solar, hydro and other  ideas to hack new power systems that work off the grid and in remote rural regions (made by the people who live there).
  • SD cards = digital storage. In fact, provide these with content  already on them, including books (libraries), encyclopedias, etc.
  • Arduino Boards = an open-source physical computing platform based on a simple input/output board and a development environment that implements the Wiring language.
  • DIY Mesh Networks = Adjusting and improving upon ideas like the Village Telco project
  • [From Solomon King] – If you’re to explore physical computing, you might need a wide array of sensors for environment management, we’re talking GPS, tilt swtiches, digital gyros, sonar, etc. This stuff is pretty expensive so having a  space to play with them (on-site) would be nice.

Physical Space
It’s important that the Hardware Hacking Garage be setup as a centralized resource for the inventor community. Memberships should be available to any inventor, or student, upon application and approval. Many times access to tools and a workshop is all that enterprising inventors, micro-entrepreneurs, and youth, need to create their first innovative project.

For a sustainable approach, this Hardware Hacking Garage could have a store attached, which can serve as a sales and marketing outlet for the devices, inventions and solutions created by the community.

This is an idea that effects everyone across Africa, a space like this is accessible and usable by young and experienced, rural and urban inventors and entrepreneurs. As much as we’d like to pretend that the ideas coming from outside of Africa will be picked up and used, the truth is that the ideas need to come from Africans for themselves and their community. An open Hacking Garage platform is where real hardware innovation for Africa will come from.