In association with Frugal Digital and CIID, a Copenhagen based research institution and design consultancy I have worked on a low cost cellphone computed SMS-based information gateway for rural areas in developing countries. The project was carried out under the supervision of and in collaboration with Vinay Venkatraman and Priya Mani and alongside collaborators Sid Sharma (Copenhagen), Varun Perumal (Pune) and Adam Little (Pune).
The project is open source, the source code for the hardware (Android app and Arduino Mega ADK code) is available on GitHub.
At the outset of the research project the following considerations regarding social challenges in developing countries were identified:
- •How can low cost, readily available materials and existing communication infrastructures of developing areas be repurposed to offer local communities access to context relevant information like medical staff availability and self care information?
- •How can these communities be empowered to contribute and disseminate content for such services?
- •How can shop owners help provide service based access to these types of information?
- •How can these services be made functionally and economically feasible while having to rely on existing traditional infrastructures?
The SMS Information Service consists of a computer (or rather cellphone) operated kiosk which enables users to receive location specific information relevant to local communities on their mobile phones. Using a phone number and micro payments in the form of small change (to offset the cost of the messages), users that visit the kiosk can subscribe periodically to the information services offered. The services include agricultural information, weather updates, updates regarding the availability of local medical staff and other community specific information. Subscribers receive periodic SMS messages on their mobile phones and receive an SMS alert when their subscription is about to expire.
The enclosure of the SMS Service Booth consists of a repurposed mailbox. (6) The components are retrofitted into the box and the interface elements are mounted through holes in the back.
An Android phone is mounted with the screen facing outward behind a layer of plexiglass and serves both as the logic unit as well as the graphical user interface. Tactile buttons (9) allow the user to navigate through the interface and select the appropriate services. The tactile numerical keypad (10) allow the user to insert her phone number and afterwards the coin acceptor (4) can be used to pay for the services. The subscriber will then receive a confirmation text and will start receiving periodic service messages until her subscription ends. Before the termination of the subscription a final alert is sent, informing the subscriber that the subscription needs to be renewed. The system is powered through solar energy (3) which trickle charges a battery pack during day time. An Arduino Mega ADK has been used in the initial configuration to connect the physical interface consisting of the buttons and coin acceptor to the Android phone hosting the service booth software.
I was involved in the conceptualisation of the SMS Information Service Booth and I developed both its software and hardware implementation, including the Android app running on the phone (in Java, using the Android SDK and Android NDK), the Arduino code (in C), the assembly and interfacing of the hardware components and the web interface for administering the services provided through the booth. In addition to the unit design, I was lucky to have the opportunity to do field testing and anthropological research while in India attending the Pune conference.
Identifying design challenges
The growth of developing economies depends to a large extent on the introduction of ‘novel’ technologies among which SMS. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development of the 4 billion people that had access to mobile phones in 2008 , close to 60% lived in the developing world . That percentage has only risen in recent years as even more people have been introduced to mobile telephony. In fact, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs census revealed that in India more people own mobile phones than latrines.
The socio-economical problem space surrounding developing countries is highly complex and presents unique challenges and opportunities. SMS has not only emerged as the dominant form of telecommunication, it has also rapidly become a financial driver and instigator of culture change.
SmsGYAN, developed by an Indian telecommunications startup called Innoz Technologies is an SMS based service that is able to deliver highly customized context specific information. At the outset of one of his talks, Deepak Ravindrian, Innoz’s CEO, points out that only 10% of the Indian population has access to the internet.  Innoz has managed to commercialize the lack of internet connectivity by repurposing SMS, an antecedent mode of wireless communication, to provide the same ubiquitous access of information.
Self-sufficiency, modularity and robustness
Brownouts and blackouts are still part of everyday reality for large populations across the planet. The International Energy Agency assesses that on a global scale more than 1.6 billion people do not have access to a reliable source of electricity.  When designing solutions for areas with poor infrastructure it is paramount to keep in mind that the power source should be mobile and low maintenance as well.
A collaboration between New York University and Stiftung Solarenergie has amounted to the development of SIMbalink , a low cost energy optimization solution for developing countries focused on reducing operational costs and maximizing lifespan of solar energy systems. SIMbalink’s system relies on SMS to send real-time diagnostic messages (e.g. battery life). In a similar fashion the SMS Service Booth sends SMS messages directly from the phone to its subscribers using a prepaid SIM card which can be (remotely) topped up periodically. The aim of the project is to conduct further research and establish long term relationships with local stakeholders like shop owners and end users in order for the service to be economically feasible. Shop owners could use the change inserted by the subscribers to top up the SIM card in the booth or alternatively offer their own sponsored information services.
While culturally rich and engaging, India is a country with many social challenges. In order to design for these challenges one needs to understand the design space in which these challenges occur. For this reason the prototype was evaluated on site in India by people from the local demographic, residents and shop keepers of down town Pune. The pilot study in Pune using a physical prototype of the SMS Service Booth yielded interesting and varying responses and affirmed the potential for community level participation. Some respondents envisioned the unit to travel from town to town and indicated that it could be mounted onto a bus or rickshaw. Others saw it as a stationary solution which would best integrate alongside other mobile services within the context of small private telephony shops.
The concept was also showcased during the INK 2012 conference where it was met with a lot of interest and positive reactions. Vinay Venkatraman, Varun Perimal, Adam Little and I introduced the concept to visitors of the conference at the Frugal Digital stand. Currently a more robust long term solution is being developed and partnerships with companies and sponsors are being struck.
- ITU. 2009. Measuring the Information Society: The ICT Development Index. International Telecommunications Union.
- UNCTAD. 2008. Information economy report 2007-2008: Science and technology for development—The new paradigm of ICT. In United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
- Ravindran, D. 2012. An SMS-based Internet search engine for the masses. TED Bangalore. [Online Video]. 25 June. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiLUPfTS0kU. [Accessed: 14 November 2012].
- R. Priddle, 2002. Energy and poverty: Iea reveals a vicious and unsustainable circle, IEA Press Release, August 2002.
- Lu, W. et al. 2010. SIMbaLink: towards a sustainable and feasible solar rural electrification system. In Proceedings of the 4th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD ’10). ACM, New York
- UNESCO. 2007. UNESCO Institute of Statistics Data Centre, regional literacy rates. http://stats.uis. unesco.org/unesco/TableViewer/tableView.aspx?ReportId=y201.
None of the five available images nor the video for this portfolio post have been included yet.
Frugal DigitalSMS Information Service Kiosk
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