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Open Mobile Consortium Launches at MobileActive ’08

Open Mobile Consortium - first meeting group at MobileActive '08
(Image by Tino Kreutzer)

One of the big initiatives that was just formed/announced at MobileActive ’08 was what we’re calling the “Open Mobile Consortium” (working name). This is a body much like the W3C, focused on bringing together groups working on initiatives in this space, formulating best practices and standards and generally working to bring this fragmented industry a little closer together.

We’ll see where this goes, but there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm and willingness to make something happen. On top of that, the organizations taking part carry a lot of weight. There were representatives from UNICEF, Shuttleworth Foundation, Tactical Tech, InSTEDD, Cell-Life, Ushahidi, UN Foundation, Open Rosa, Columbia University, and many more that I can’t remember.

Benevlolent Dictator of Open Mobile Consortium: Robert Kirkpatrick of InSTEDD

This is an open group, and there’s room for input from the private, academic and the non-profit sectors. Look for a website shortly, until then know that our benevolent leader, Robert Kirkpatrick of InSTEDD, or Peter Benjamin (secretariat) of Cell-Life.org will be handling the process going forward.

[Needless to say Ushahidi is a proud founding member of this group.]

Mobile Phones in Crisis & Disaster Situations

This morning I had the honor of putting on a workshop at MobileActive ’08 with Robert Kirkpatrick, of InSTEDD, and Christopher Fabian, of UNICEF. Both of them are doing some amazing work in the field of disaster and crisis response, using all different types of technology, but specifically what people carry in their pockets all over the world: the mobile phone.

InSTEDD, UNICEF and Ushahidi at MobileActive '08

InSTEDD has a number of ongoing projects, generally thinking about ways to use technology to help organizations collaborate better in some of the harshest disaster environments in the world. You’ll find their tech guys everywhere, from Cambodia to hurricane Ike. Their Mesh4x and SMS GeoChat technology is incredibly important, and I foresee it being used in many applications in the future.

the UNICEF BeeUNICEF has two interesting skunkworks-like projects (among many more) that they talked about today. The Bee, which allows communication, connectivity and data access in field conditions where such technologies are often difficult or impossible to use (video of the old version of the Bee). Christopher also talked about RapidSMS, an SMS and voice data gathering tool that is currently being used in Northern Uganda.

Takeaways: Free, Open Source, Customizable

It was interesting to hear each of us talk about our projects and how we each have an immense amount of respect for what each of the other groups is doing. Ushahidi’s focus is on gathering distributed data from civilians for visualization, InSTEDD is focused on collaboration, and UNICEF is trying to figure out how that works within groups and communities.

One consistent message is this: every crisis situation differs, so we need to build tools that are open and free for anyone to access. It’s a little like all of us creating different Lego pieces that go into the Lego box for everyone else to use.

Ushahidi needs to figure out how to incorporate both RapidSMS and SMS GeoChat. UNICEF’s Bee needs to get Mesh4x embedded in their device – which has both open source hardware and software. There are other tools, like Sahana, that we need to learn how to incorporate into our systems as well – or at the least make possible to interface between when people need that specific mix of tools in their particular situation.

Lastly, but probably most importantly, we all see that developing within the context of the areas of the world where these disaster or crisis situations are happening is vital. UNICEF has developers in a couple different African countries. InSTEDD’s devs are training local devs in all of the countries that they go to. Ushahidi has 85% of our dev team in Africa. It’s a trend, and a good one – making sure that the people build the tools using the devices and limitations in which they will be used.

Look for big things stemming from this meet up soon.

South Africa – MobileActive ’08

Debates on the Mobile Web at MobileActive ’08

We just finished a really good conversation on the the future of the mobile web at MobileActive ’08. Toni Eliasz of Ungana Afrika moderated a discussion where one side of the room was charged with arguing against the mobile web, and the other half for the mobile web. I sat on the “for” side of the room.

MobileActive '08

My Position

The web is made up of data, and we generally think of it as what we access via the PC. However, that same data can be accessed and added to through mobile phones as well. Whether its basic SMS, Java apps or direct web browsing. Data is data – how you access is what matters.

Some of the issues holding back penetration of the mobile web:

  • Accessibility – though this gets better every year
  • Cost – The reason why you can’t directly compare interaction or development of apps and services that use the mobile phone to the PC is because of the cost associated with data and SMS costs on mobile right now.
  • Interface – usability can be a major problem on Java apps, and 160 characters is very limiting.

But the basic truth remains. If you can access and contribute to the global databases of content, then you are in fact on the mobile web.

The mobile web is already here. It’s happening now.

Mobile Web Questions

Mobile Web questions
The questions we debated.

Rabble’s and Blaine’s Positions

Rabble, creator of Yahoo’s Fire Eagle, and Blaine, the original architect of Twitter, continued the discussion with me afterward. The claim here is that the only truly mobile web device is the iPhone, all else is negligible – maybe not in theory, but in action.

Rabble explaining how we access the Mobile Web

Rabble tells me that it’s much like saying that if you could get the web through this blurry glass, even if it’s feasible, it’s not useful or likely. He’s got a good point…

[final note: I was preoccupied while trying to post this with Rabble and Blaines’ conversation…]

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