The Internet of Things, meet crowdsourcing

Over the last year I have had the great fortune of mind melding with various people with incredible ideas. As some of you may know, I am involved in Ushahidi, an open source platform for data collection, visualization and interactive mapping. Ushahidi has gotten its notoriety in the crowdsourcing sphere, with growing adoption around the world. From Kenya to Russia, Poland, Mexico, South Africa, Italy and countless other countries; it is something I continue to marvel at while enjoying the ride of learning; with a global community of hackers from Ghana, Malawi, Netherlands, US, Kenya, Poland etc, I marvel even more.

The idea behind the platform is simple. That anyone, given a channel to say ‘This is what I see’ and send that information via SMS, email, web and twitter. With Ushahidi’s plethora of mobile apps, reporting via smartphones can also be done quite seamlessly. With the Android app SMSsync, you can be your own SMS gateway. What this means is you can run a hub from your Android phone, such that any sms’s sent to you get sync’ed with a call back URL which can be an Ushahidi deployment or another server based application. So with the channels of data collection sorted, you of course have the processing capability that is available on the cloud (Think SwiftRiver), and the visualization component which can help convey the data in a compelling way.Maps. Things are getting even more compelling with plugins such as Cloudmade (Think preety, preety maps), and bookmarklets that can overlay Ushahidi data with other data available in the open layers format. Point is, the tools to create a visual from the collected data is also sorted. Beautifully too.

Now to the Internet of things. My first encounter with this idea was from listening to Elder of the Internet Vint Cerf at Lift09. He mentioned how you can have sensors in your cellar that make sure the temperature of the wine stays constant, and does some automatic reporting via internet to you if there is an anomaly. Those sensors have IP addresses and are nodes in your network. I did not think of it in terms of ‘Internet of Things’ at the time, but looking back now, that is exactly what he was describing. Other sensors abound, from the innovative Enphase inverter for giving you information on your energy generation from solar panels to the trash tracking devices used in the MIT Senseable City lab projects. Another great way to grasp this concept is to check out the twitter account of London’s Tower Bridge, and read this account of how it was set to tweet.

Now take these two ideas and meld them in different ways. Allow me to use the word holistic. As in holistic near ‘real time sense-making‘, incorporating the internet of things, with crowdsourced data delivered through channels that encourage participation. There is an opportunity to see things dynamically and not just do after-the-fact post mortem. This could work for flash point events like the Haiti earthquake (taking data form Geiger counters etc + crowdsourced data like that available on the haiti deployment run by Noula.ht. It could also work for longer term events such as the BP Oil spill in Louisiana.

…the closer to real-time one can get the right answer and respond, the better. And milliseconds matter.

-Jeff Jonas on a smarter planet

– Data from things/sensors can trigger a report online if a tracked value reaches a certain threshold or meets certain criteria. For example, the Copenhagen Wheel by MIT Senseable lab. The wheel contains sensors that monitor carbon monoxide levels in the air,NOx/Nitrogen Oxides, a measure of air pollution, noise, ambient temperature and relative humidity. The data is accessible on a mobile phone app and can be shared with friends or even the city.

– Data from people filling out a form, sending an email, SMS or twitter message. This can be qualitative in nature, and use of the Ushahidi platform provides a way for citizens to participate in data gathering, plus sign up for alerts that are relevant to their concerns. An example that can be useful to check out is the Where Are The Cuts map from The Open Knowledge Foundation in the UK.

Combining the various sources of data (Open layers can be used to distinguish various types of data/color coding points of data can help to differentiate between sensor data and crowdsourced data). A dynamic map of information can then emerge that is not so much a snapshot, but an animation.

Cue: Augmented Reality (AR).
The Mobile Individual Measurements of Air Quality (MIMAQ) project out of Netherlands gives a perfect example of combining sensors, air pollution information and AR.

This wired piece on ‘When augmented reality hits the Internet of Things’ is also instructive and interesting.

Max Planck quote

Change is at times compelled by insight. The insight from using technologies/ideas outlined above could lead to behaviour change if we can make data relevant to an individual. Relevant to the decisions they have to make based on the information they have at the time. For an idea that mixes some of the above ideas and adds relevance, have a look at Mapnificent.

Mapnificent from Stefan Wehrmeyer on Vimeo.

[Mapnificent] …allows you to set a point in your chosen city and a map will display the entire area over which you could travel by public transit in a given amount of time. It also allows you to see an area that is both 15 minutes away from yourself and 15 minutes away from a friend by transit, and since it is integrated with Google Maps, allows you to search destinations within that specified area.

The recent deployment of the Ushahidi platform by The South China Morning Post is one to watch. “CitizenMap starts with environmental issues, focusing on the destruction of natural beauty in Hong Kong – from illegal dumping to unauthorized development, from vegetation removal to columbarium construction.”

Citizen map Hong Kong

The reason why this could be interesting, is that it has the potential to give journalists leads that they can follow up on and gather more facts on issues such as toxic waste dumping. It is harnessing the power of the people to help make Hong Kong a better place. This feeds into the idea of changing behaviour. If individuals/corporations realize that the public is watching and able to report incidents, would they still engage in such activities?

Say we had near-real time crowdsourced data from the public, and data from sensors all in the public domain; what could we do? What kind of projects could we come up with?

During TEDxNairobi, Erik Kigada an architect with Planning Systems shocked many of us in the audience by revealing something we did not know about. The city of Nairobi does not have a coherent master plan. The city is using 1999 plans to build in 2010. This presents myriad problems for businesses and individuals who need to plan. His point was made stark by the road construction happening while the event was going on. If a master plan existed showing that a bypass was planned, the architect who built the auditorium would not have put it near the road. There is an opportunity for emerging economies, rapidly growing cities to become smart cities. They can do this by taking a cue from the Senseable city projects. Current, near-real time data can be gathered with the help of the crowd, to provide pertinent information to urban planners, academics and leaders. The hope here is that they can make well informed decisions that take into account the flowing reality of the city.

Insight from data can be used to leapfrog.” -Assaf Biderman

There is also the opportunity for education and academia to use participatory systems to link science, data and student participation. Relating the exploration of built/urban environment to the scientific method of observation, data collection and analysis.

I am interested in your ideas on how we can use these technologies and ideas to address the many challenges facing our world in Health, Education and Environment. I am particularly interested in figuring out a joint project in Kenya, please leave a comment or contact me to explore and collaborate.

Events to check out if you are interested in this topic:
-The Urban Internet of Things Conference Tokyo Nov 29th – Dec 01
– Vlad Trifa’s Lift@home workshop ‘Hack your city – Urban IOT after party’ Nov 29th Tokyo
– Open Data Hack Day Dec 4th all over the world
Workshop on Applications of Wireless Sensor Networks for Environmental Monitoring in Developing Countries to be followed by Conference on Wireless Sensors Technologies for Environmental Monitoring 28th February – 11th March 2011 Trieste, Italy.

Additional resources/reading
MIT Senseable City site and twitter @SenseableCity
– Peter Hirshberg’s blog
– Free M-science book Sensing, Computing and Dissemination
– UCLA Center for Embedded Network Sensing CENS
– JP De Vooght blog and twitter @jdevoo. This post titled ‘Arduino Meets Ushahidi’ is particularly fun.
– The Economist special report on smart systems
Jeff Jonas blog IBM

\o/ Data Gathering With Mobile Phones

For those in the African technology space, the challenges of gathering data from the field in areas that are not quite ‘on-the-grid’ are apparent. Let me just keep it short by saying ‘Houston, we have a power problem’. Charging laptops when you are off-grid is not easy, but if you have a Nokia E71 that can stay for 3 days without needing a re-charge…well, you get the idea.

Last October I excitedly proclaimed just how much I loved Nokia because they had a data gathering app for E71’s, which they were making available for NGO’s to test out. Please forgive me for not blogging about it. but you can find more info on the mobile active wiki, or watch this 2 minute you-tube clip on tracking the Dengue fever in Brazil.

This brings me to the latest news from FrontlineSMS. FrontlineSMS forms provides a killer functionality of basically using SMS as the data carrying pigeon. This is how it works. The person running the FrontlineSMS hub creates forms with questions for the person in the field to fill in with information. The field agent only needs to have downloaded the forms client from http://forms.frontlinesms.com/, this will work on any Java enabled phone, which is preety much a whole lotta phones. They can then receive a form from the hub via sms, fill it in and send it back again via SMS. Hmm I like my data-pigeon metaphor! This eliminates the need for a GPRS connection. If the person is entering the data at a place with no mobile signal, the information is still saved in ‘offline’ mode until the phone has a mobile signal. I do have to point out that with \o/ forms you do not require an E71 or high end PDA like with the Nokia data gathering tool. I still heart Nokia, and would highly recommend the E71 if you need a smartphone.

formsclient.jpg

Read more about it over at Ken’s blog, Erik’s thoughts on the Ushahidi blog and Jon Thompson’s coverage on Aid Worker Daily.

This functionality adds more fuel to the mobile => Cloud paradigm that I feel will redefine the participation and engagement with communities in rural areas. Once the information gets back to the hub, it can sync with a web app like Ushahidi or any other web enabled implementation that takes input from the Frontline SMS hub. The pretty graphs and visualizations are best presented on the web IMO. Personally, I am looking forward to using FrontlineSMS \o/ forms to plan a kick-ass tree planting party!

PS: For \o/ users in Kenya, do note that FrontlineSMS works with the Safaricom E220 modem. If it works with the new USB stick version E160? kindly leave a comment.

When I met Ken during the Plan International workshop in Kenya, he said something that I cant help but pass along.
“Do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” Keep doing whatever it is you love to do, and do not be afraid to try something new. I think Tonee and I co-opted that for our new-years motto. Seriously though, if you have ideas for using \o/ in your work, check out www.frontlinesms.com. Ken and his team have built a very useful data gathering tool that could give your project even more reach. Plus, the folks in the forums are super-nice. Really.

South Africa: State of The Mobile Web

SA_image.png Via ICT4D on Twitter

The Opera Mini mobile browser is gaining popularity even in my household (ahem Nokia E71), and the latest numbers from the State of the mobile web indicate the stats for SA. I did not find any stats on Kenyan usage, i suspect its still not a ‘critical mass’ to warrant inclusion in SMW. Would be curious if anyone has mobile web stats from Kenya, please share, because Tim Berners Lee said so!

Download SMW PDF here and read a summary with highlights and pretty graphs here.

From the report:

In 2008, we saw strong growth in Opera Mini usage all over the world, in both developed and developing countries. Social networks and search engines were competitive, as Opera Mini users determined their preferences.

emphasis is mine
I would not be surprised if traffic from the developing world eclipses that of the developed world in the coming years. If over 80% of BBC mobile site’s traffic comes from Africa…we are likely to see more dominance of mobile web usage by my fellow Africans.
I heard this bbc stat last year and cant for the life of me find the document it was mentioned in. Halp?!

Snapshot: South Africa (# of unique users)
Top 10 sites in South Africa (# of unique users)

1) facebook.com

2) google.com

3) wikipedia.org

4) yahoo.com (up from 5)

5) gamejump.com (down from 4)

6) my.opera.com

7) mxit.co.za

8. youtube.com

9) waptrick.com (up from 10)

10) live.com (back on the list)

Top social networks in 2008 South Africa
Facebook was the preferred social networking site for South Africans in 2008.

Web site Growth rate in 2008 (users)

facebook.com 187.48%

peperonity.com 66.44%

mocospace.com 189.98%

hi5.com 59.84%

I am shocked, who are these people using hi5?!!
It is quite likely that the stats for Kenya would indicate Facebook as the top site, would love to see how Zuqka is fairing on. @kahenya i am sure the TOS for Zuqka would definitely trump FB’s current heavy handedness?

Berkman Luncheon Series – Innovation in Sub Saharan Africa

Friend of the blog Ethan Zuckerman will be speaking on September 2nd 2008 at the Berkman luncheon series, so is Eric Osiakwan of AfriSpa. The event will be webcast live at 12:30 PM Eastern Time (US) Bookmark the link and tune in if you can.

The Climate of Innovation Around Information Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa
Ghanaian internet entrepreneur and researcher Eric Osiakwan and the Berkman Center’s Ethan Zuckerman will discuss the climate for innovation around information technology in Sub-Saharan Africa. Eric and Ethan will talk about projects to improve connectivity to the continent and the business models these projects are pioneering, novel uses for mobile phone networks and the use of citizen media as a political force on the continent.

If you dont like the network, make your own!

Well, i am paraphrasing Jim Forster’s line which in its entirety reads, “If you don’t like the network you have, go out and make your own“. This was one of my favorite quotables at TEDGlobal in Arusha.

Jim Forster is the distinguished engineer at Cisco, the veritable maker of routers and switches that form the backbone of the internet, amongst other products and services. He is also one of the contributors to the invaluable free resource “Wireless Networking in the Developing World” – An in depth guide to planning and building low cost telecom infrastructure.

In his 3 minute presentation at TEDGlobal he talked about the current state of telecom, likening it to a railroad system where everyone is a customer but it doesn’t reach all the areas ‘last mile’ as it were. The model that we should be considering is one that is composed of many private networks, similar to the model of the internet, or a ‘network of networks’. We need to encourage our governments to support the idea of many networks that are run either privately or as businesses providing network access to others. Please click on the graphic below to download the presentation that he has made available.
Presentation at TEDglobal

There is also more information available on the site Network The World.

While on the topic of wireless networks, Riyaz of skunkworks pointed me to Meraki’s june announcement of the first solar powered outdoor wifi access kit.

Priced at just $99, Meraki Outdoor can send a signal up to 700 feet. Paired with Merakiâ??s existing indoor $49 Mini, the Meraki Outdoor repeater can power access for dozens of households sharing one high speed connection. Meraki Outdoor can be easily installed on a wall or even a pole outside the house. It marks another step forward in Merakiâ??s efforts to change the economics of Wi-Fi access, driving the cost per household of high speed connections to $1 to $2 a month.

Adding the Meraki Solar accessory kit will allow the repeater to broadcast a signal without being connected to any electrical source, making it an ideal solution for any community, even emerging markets where electricity is scant or unreliable.

The skunkworks crew and other wireless networking experts, you are very welcome to comment on whether you see any private networks being set up in Nairobi or other parts of Africa that utilize the ideas alluded to above. Meanwhile…no whining!

The Network
Image from the internet superstar – Hugh Mcleod.

**Tangential Digression – Weird Cell behavior on the border.

On crossing the border from Tanzania into Kenya and vice versa, i got the following text message on my safaricom line…from Celtel. It stated “Welcome to Kenya & thank you for choosing Celtel.International access code is 000 or +.The tourist help line is +254733617499.Celtel. Making life better.”. Worrisome to say the least. Is celtel just broadcasting a signal to all and sundry? How did they get the safaricom number? What expectation of privacy should safaricom customers have? I later found out that everyone gets that sms whether they are on a celtel line or safaricom. I mentioned it to Mr. Forster and he pointed out that some networks do play nice and share infrastructure even base stations. Its quite curious…Do chime in if you’ve experienced something similar, even weirder, or if you can shed light on how and why this occurs. Does the same thing happen on crossing into Uganda?