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April 25 2012

21:21

As news shifts toward mobile, will text alerts get left behind?

In a blast text message to subscribers on Tuesday afternoon, The Washington Post announced that it’s…ending blast text messages to subscribers, on April 30. So don’t expect to get SMS headlines like “Mitt Romney sweeps GOP primaries in five states” for much longer. The newspaper’s mobile team was reluctant to detail how this fits into a larger mobile strategy but Beth Jacobs, the Washington Post’s mobile general manager, provided this statement:

We found that more of our readers want to receive news alerts from e-mail. And because so few of our readers were signing up for text alerts, it made more sense to dedicate our resources to push alerts through our mobile apps.

The Post wouldn’t quantify what “so few” meant. News consumption is growing more mobile, but with the number of smartphone and tablet users on the rise, it might make sense for newsrooms to abandon text alerts — which can cost money for both sender and receiver — and shift to push notifications and that old standby, email.

People are still text messaging like crazy — averaging 40 messages sent and received each day — but texting leveled off between 2010 and 2011, according to a 2011 Pew study. That’s in part due to a rise in alternatives to texting, like Facebook chat and Twitter direct messages, and because smartphone apps can generate on-time notifications without the cost of SMS. Last year, Apple introduced iMessage, a protocol that allows iOS users to bypass carriers to reach one another with what look and act like texts; BlackBerry’s BBM has been around for several years.

It wasn’t so long ago that newsrooms delivering text alerts were providing a cutting edge service for an on-demand audience. People still appear to want news and information on-demand — if text messaging is tapering off, it likely illustrates that distribution preferences are evolving.

That being said, there was only a small smattering of Twitter-expressed disappointment about the Washington Post announcement:

Washington Post is doing away with text alerts at the end of the month. That stinks. How I keep up with news half the time.

— Ron Miller (@ron_miller) April 24, 2012

Washington post is canceling text alerts?? Great now whos gonna text me.

— Karin Beswick(@KarinBeswick) April 24, 2012

The Washington Post isn’t alone. The Los Angeles Times doesn’t offer text alerts, nor does The Wall Street Journal, though a spokeswoman says it once did. (It reported last June that text messaging in the United States was “slowing sharply.”)

Large-circulation U.S. dailies that will still text you include The New York Times, which offers text alerts about severe weather, real estate, sports and more. USA Today says on its website that it will text subscribers with updates on sports, weather, stock quotes, and celebrity gossip.

Photo by Yutaka Tsutano used under a Creative Commons license.

November 09 2010

15:00

Overcoming the Challenges of Using Ushahidi in Low Bandwidth Areas

With the increased adoption of Ushahidi around the world, we are finding that one problem (which we anticipated in the very beginning of the initiative) is that of low bandwidth regions. In the early days of testing the platform in Kenya, we found that the map would take ages to load, and so the development team worked very hard to change this. This was of course before the installation of fiber optic links in Kenya, which make connection speeds much better after September 2009.

Our current solution for integrating SMS in areas with low bandwidth (but good wireless service coverage) is to have a FrontlineSMS hub with a compatible mobile phone attached to a computer via USB or even Bluetooth for those who prefer it.

Ushahidi plus FrontlineSMS

That has worked reasonably well, but we are always looking for ways to improve access to maps containing crowdsourced information, particularly in areas with low Internet penetration rates. Recent statistics indicate that mobile networks are now available to 90 percent of the world's population overall, and to 80 percent of the people living in rural areas. This means it's even more important for Ushahidi to be able to collect and then visualize information from mobile phones. It's worth remembering that for many people with mobile phones, their first social network is their address book.

What follows below are several updates on developments to improve the ability for people to use Ushahidi in low bandwidth areas. We welcome everyone in our greater community to try these applications out and provide us with feedback. Let's see if we can continue this process of "real-time sense making," even in rural areas. At the very least, we would like to have the tools well tested and used in various locales.

Luanda

We have an upcoming version of Ushahidi dubbed "Luanda" that will be released soon, it will have many improvements that will be of interest to deployers around the world.

There are two options for using Ushahidi in low bandwidth regions:

1. Configuring the mobile version of the site you build and put Ushahidi on. You will need the 2.0 build of the platform (caveat that it's a test build). Then add and activate the mobile plug-in from our plug-ins database.

2. The offline mapping tab available as an OS X test build - Dale Zak and Emmanuel Kala are still working on this, but we'd like to invite users to test things out. Caveat is it's a test build and for Mac OS X for now.

Please submit issues/suggestions on the Github tracking issue tracking log, as this will help us greatly.

Frontline Mapping

The upcoming Frontline Mapping plug-in allows new ways for Ushahidi incident reports to be gathered in the field:

  • SMS-to-Report -- Any incoming text message can be converted into an incident report and synced once Internet access becomes available. For example, a text message that reads "Riots in the streets, several people injured" would be received by Frontline. A person managing the application double-clicks that message and the new incident report dialog is pre-populated with that information, along with the sender's contact info if available.
  • FrontlineForms-to-Report -- The Mapping plug-in can generate a FrontlineForm with all the required Ushahidi fields, and send that Form to any contact with a Java-enabled phone. The incoming FrontlineForm response is automatically covered to an incident report, and can be synced once the Internet becomes available.
  • FrontlineSurveys-to-Report -- The Mapping plug-in can also populate the new FrontlineSurveys plug-in with Ushahidi-specific questions (such as, "What is the incident description?") You can send a survey to any contact via SMS, which initializes a series of questions, the next question sent once the previous answer is received.

Here are four demo videos showing the Mapping Plug-in in action:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/9326/FrontlineSMS-Mapping-One.swf

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/9326/FrontlineSMS-Mapping-Two.swf

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/9326/FrontlineSMS-Mapping-Three.swf

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/9326/FrontlineSMS-Mapping-Four.swf

Note that the FrontlineForms and FrontlineSurveys options require less work for administrators because the data received is structured; however it may require multiple SMS messages to gather all the information. In times of crisis, the user may only be able to send one text message. However, community health care workers may choose to use the FrontlineForms or FrontlineSurveys options to submit structured patient information.

Do subscribe to our blog feed or follow us on Twitter to get the latest about upcoming announcements about the continuing evolution of the platform.

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