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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Microblogging, Location and Emergencies

I’ve been using Twitter for a while now, and have thought quite a bit about it in Africa. More, I’ve thought about what the ramifications of Twitter pulling out of the global market means, and then thought quite a bit about Jaiku, Laconica and Mxit and various other chat/microblogging applications. There is, without a doubt, a move towards short-form updating via mobile and web, and it needs to be federated.

There’s something missing in this new mobile + web microblogging movement, and I think it’s location.

Thoughts on location and microblogging...

Why Location Matters

Most of us use these services for updating, and being updated, by our friends and interesting people. That’s the main use, and it will remain so. The truth is, you and I don’t really care to hear what any random stranger is doing, even if they are nearby. However, we do care what is happening on a very hyper-local level in the case of emergency or “big event”.

It’s somewhat like the “pothole theory” that I talked about earlier: you wouldn’t normally care about the pothole on a steet, unless it’s yours. It helps explain why we care about certain things.

If you use Twitter and have an iPhone, you’ll probably be aware of Twinkle – it’s an application that enriches your Twitter experience. In Twinkle, you can set your location and then a certain radius from which to receive twitter updates, even if they’re from perfect strangers. I think that’s the beginning of what we’re talking about.

However, again… I don’t want to just get updates from random strangers in my locale. I want to only receive the ones that are “important” to me. I want to be notified when there is an emergency, major traffic jam or something else pertinent to me.

The “What if…”

What if we created a way that a greater federated system of microblogging applications could also use location as an alert point?

Of course, my current world is colored by Ushahidi, crisis and emergency news coverage. I think of the ability to anonymously send in reports to a system like Ushahidi running in any country, and those who are part of this greater, extended and federated network would be updated – even if that person was unknown and anonymous.

Federated Microblogging, SMS and Location

Here’s a use case:

John is a Twitter user in Accra, Ghana. Anne has setup a local Laconica server with 5000 users in the greater Accra area. Eddie is not part of any of these networks, just an average guy with a mobile phone. Ushahidi is running in Ghana.

Users from the Laconica group can setup an “alert” for a specific radius from their location using Ushahidi, linked to their Laconica account.

An earthquake happens and Twitter and the Laconica server are ablaze with dialogue about what is happening. Eddie (our normal guy), sends an alert into the Ushahidi number, along with hundreds of other Ghanians who are not part of Laconica or Twitter. Anne, and the other Laconica users are receiving alerts (web and mobile) from within their set alert radius automatically, from completely anonymous people. Alerts on where people are trapped, who is missing, who is found, where not to go, and where help is needed most.

John, our Twitter user is updating Twitter, but it has no little local implications due to not being able to be used in Ghana (except via web). Local mobile users aren’t receiving his updates, and he isn’t receiving theirs.

I recognize that there are a lot of things going on in this scenario, and it’s imperfect, but it serves as a good setting to discuss some of the shortcomings of the current situation and the possible growth areas for them. It also talks to even bigger ideas and the greater impact in Africa of a real social mobile network that can connect people using only mobile phones and do it as needed.

There are some interesting things to learn and apply from location-specific alternatives to global SMS gateways (like FrontlineSMS), and I wonder where tools such as InSTEDD’s SMS GeoChat can be used here too.

More to come on “getting updates that matter” later, this is just some initial thinking on it. I’d love to hear your thoughts too.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Erik. I’ve been thinking about platforms like Brightkite as well for possible application to emergency/coordination scenarios, ie, subscribing to geo-SMS alerts. But Twinkle is far simpler. Not sure if anyone is using the term geo-SMS.

    I also like your emphasis on the “me” factor which is what the idea of iRevolution is all about:

    “I want to only receive the ones that are ‘important’ to me. I want to be notified when there is an emergency, major traffic jam or something else pertinent to me. ”

    Providing the individual with greater situational awareness so that they can take the most informed decision possible; that’s what I call an iRevolution. Kinda of reminds me of the tricorder in StarTrek… hmmm, maybe I’ll post something on that : )

    The second step in all of this will be to go beyond simple alerts to communicating response options in parallel to focusing on preparedness and contingency planning at the community level. Ushahidi could play an important role in fostering the latter by doing the former well.

  2. My two cents: I think what you really need is the platform to synthesize all of the information. Brightkite is the Twitter + geo-information you need, and accessible via SMS, but doesn’t necessarily have the critical mass. If I could figure out how to look at the source of my Twitter RSS feed, I would imagine it embeds the location. Downside is that you can’t easily change the location via mobile. Also, Laconica is a fine too but, as far as I know, doesn’t have a SMS gateway. In short, there are tools already out there which do a mixture of what you want; I think the next step is aggregating and mashing up on the geo-space.

  3. One thought I missed: assigning geo-data to SMSes being delivered to and originating from FrontlineSMS. In the developed world this could be possible by hashtagging the postal code (i.e. #97062) but in places where it doesn’t exist, you might have to resort to building an arbitrary grid of your own.

  4. I wish I could find something that worked well with SMS here in Kenya/Sudan. In stead of finding one solution, I think we need to look toward using an open API that everyone feeds off of so that everything can crossbreed.

    I think twitter’s success is easy… they make the simplest platform. Everything else I’ve seen, brightkite, Jaiku, etc. are all cluttered. And simple transfers to mobile much easier.

  5. I think you are asking some very smart questions. There is huge amount of tools available which allready interface to some extent, but the real useful interfaces/merges we are seeing are only a tip of the iceberg. The latest developments in microblogging are particularly interesting in a development context, I think; a person in the field can update a website by simply sending a text message by a basic mobile phone.
    Some people talk about ‘development 2.0’ which is a great concept. Guys behind the 1%CLUB (but also nabuur.com) have allready proven that it can work and microblogging to keep the individual sponsors up to date is a great way to go.
    Then about the location factor. I started using Twitter and Brightkite recently. Juliana pointed the last one out to me and when you register you can use the ‘guess my location’ feature which in my case indeed gave me my exact location though my laptop and internet access point. Pretty amazing, I think. Does this help in the thinking process, Erik? (Or raise more questions? 😉

  6. Sawa sawa, Erik, did some more thinking and wrote up a blog post in response to your comment:

    “I don’t want to just get updates from random strangers in my locale. I want to only receive the ones that are ‘important’ to me.”


    Thanks again for posting!

  7. Thanks for the great feedback on this post so far. If Brightkite were to open source their platform so that it could be easily replicated and federated globally, then yes, it would be just about right for all this. The next best option is to have them part of some greater network of federated and unfederated microblogging services which have applications that all work independently and together as needed. Maybe one day…

    What’s an even more important concept is that normal non-PC and non-internet users could be a big part of this. How could this be equally valuable to the user who never ever accesses the network via a PC? What then?

  8. could this idea be useful too in Sudan? There is quite a lot of violence there in Sudan that this might prove useful in such events. I have been following a series of project with The Emma Academy Project, and I think that building a school will really help relieve the nation from the war, since the children will be learning a lot by then.

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