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August 04 2010


Freedom Fone Succeeds with Call-in Soap Opera; Plans Activism

Freedom Fone version 1.6 is now available for download. This version builds on existing core features and adds some useful new functionality, and we hope it will inspire new deployments. Freedom Fone provides a voice database where users can access news and public-interest information via landline, mobile or Internet phones. Users can call in and then dial specific numbers to find the information they need.

Deployments of 1.5

Since the public launch of version 1.5 six months ago, there have been over 230 downloads of the software from the website, hundreds of email enquiries and thousands of visits to the demo site from over 3,000 different locations worldwide.

The diverse spectrum of individuals and organizations who have downloaded the software cover a wide spectrum of potential usage scenarios: Reaching out to ethnic refugees; sending reminders to pregnant mothers; communicating with indigenous arts communities; providing information services for remote musicians; helping victims of xenophobic violence; interacting with parents and school children from disadvantaged communities; providing support to sexual health workers; preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS; and audio journalism from the field. "Let us know":":http://www.freedomfone.org/contact how you could foresee using Freedom Fone.

Tariro Cartoon3.png

Tariro on Top continues to be one of the Kubatana Trust's most successful deployments of Freedom Fone to date. The call-in audio soap opera deals with sexual harassment in the workplace in an entertaining yet informative manner.

In just over a month there have been 1,752 calls from 1,102 unique numbers, with an average of 46 calls per day. Seventy percent of these calls were made from mobile phones and the remainder from landlines. Tariro on Top, the first program in an edutainment series, is comprised of five two-minute episodes. The average call length into the service has been over two minutes, with most callers listening to at least the first full episode. This is a significant achievement for a cost-to-caller service of this kind in Zimbabwe, where mobile calls cost U.S. $0.25 a minute and where unemployment hovers around 94 percent.

In terms of marketing, the SMS campaigns advertising the service created dramatic spikes in call volumes. Interestingly, the distribution of free, postage-paid postcards seemed to attract more determined callers who appeared to navigate through the voice menus more thoroughly. If you are in Zimbabwe, try out Tariro while it's still live by calling 0913 444 321 up to 8. For international callers dial +263-913-444321 up to 8. Alternatively, you can listen to the audio files online.

Development of 1.6

Here's a quick overview of some of the new functionality in Version 1.6 of Freedom Fone.

A language switcher now makes it easy to translate the user interface into English, Swahili or Spanish. In September, when we have our localization interface in place, we will invite volunteers to translate the GUI into additional languages.

It is now really simple to export audio files, including voice messages received through the leave-a-message component. Another valuable simplification addresses the need for callers to be able to leave a voice message by simply ending their call. The original functionality, which required callers to explicitly save their voice messages by pressing a designated number, is still available for organizations that wish to use it. System reporting has also been improved thanks to the inclusion of a report that details the duration of each call to the service.

This version is being ported to Ubuntu 10.04 and will be released as Version 1.6.5 LTS in September. This will be the stable long-term support version for the current feature set. Additional functionality will be incorporated into Version 2.0 due in October 2010. There's lots more to come, but you should definitely get going with Version 1.6 now!

Digital Activism

At the same time we're working to increase use of Freedom Fone, a recent interview with Gaurav Mishra, the CEO of 2020 Social, has caused us to consider the nature of digital activism. Speaking with the Guardian, Mishara said there are two main paradigms of digital activism: Empowering people with information and engaging with inspiration.

He listed Freedom Fone as a good example of a simple-to-use technology that empowers disadvantaged communities (mainly in Africa and Asia) by providing access to basic information and a voice to tell their stories firsthand. Mishra said that the second paradigm, engaging with inspiration, works with privileged online communities, based mainly in affluent North America and Europe. For these groups, it is not a lack of information access but rather a "crisis of caring" -- and the goal of this paradigm is to inspire action. In the end, he said, we are limited at looking at the world through either lens, and the world can benefit from a cross-pollination of these paradigms.

Mishra said that "researchers have found support for the 1:9:90 rule in many different contexts. The 1:9:90 rule says that 90% of all users are consumers, 9% of all users are curators and only 1% of the users are creators" of content.

We have encountered similar trends with Freedom Fone. For instance, for one of the current services, only 1 percent of the callers have taken advantage of the leave-a-message service to contribute feedback and participate in a two-way dialogue, despite the high call volumes into the service. This indicates one of the difficulties of shifting between paradigms and not only informing, but also inspiring action.

Freedom Fone could better engage with the inspiration paradigm by encouraging compelling content that promotes meaningful conversation, collaboration and participation. This may lead to increased co-creation and collective action of the open source software and user communities. Organizations like ours could benefit from improving collective intelligence by aggregating collective actions effectively and building stronger recommendation systems -- such as case studies and best usage scenarios -- just as Google does by ranking pages.

What do you think organizations like Freedom Fone could do to support both paradigms?

December 21 2009


An Orchestra of Linux Laptops, and How to Make Your Own Laptop Instrument


For a generation of musicians of nearly every genre, the laptop has become an instrument. It’s easy to take for granted, but the rise of the computer for music has been remarkable. Less than twenty years ago, real-time digital synthesis and audio processing was the domain of expensive, specialized workstations. Now, $700 per seat can buy you a full-blown musical rig, with the computer hardware, gestural input courtesy the Nintendo Wii controller, and even a DIY speaker made from IKEA salad bowls. The next challenge is to make this setup as flexible and reliable as possible. Enter Linux.

According with the laptop’s graduation to instrument status, laptops orchestras have spread worldwide, inspired especially by the innovative Princeton Laptop Orchestra (“PLOrk”) directed by Dan Trueman and Perry Cook. PLOrk’s alumnus Ge Wang has even gone on to greater fame making applications for the iPhone via ocarina and T-Pain app developer Smule. The sounds of these ensembles may sometimes be strange, but by pushing laptop performance, the groups are a great place to look for how to get the most out of computer music, whatever your tastes may be.

Virginia Tech’s L2Ork’s claim to faim is that it’s a laptop orchestra powered by Linux. Why does that matter? For one, it makes a big difference on cost. By using Linux-powered netbooks, they’ve slashed the per-student cost from that of the Mac laptops used in some other ensembles, on a machine that’s more compact. Far from making sacrifices to save money, the result is actually  greater reliability, flexibility, efficiency, and audio performance.

L2Ork Debut December 04, 2009

As with the PLOrk ensemble, L2Ork combines expressive input with open-ended digital sound making production, localizing the sound near the computer itself using hemispherical speakers. In this way, the laptop instrument can attempt to learn something from acoustic instruments, which are played with human gestures and have sound sources that are positioned physically where the instrument is.


You don’t have to enroll at Virginia Tech to apply these lessons to your own music making, however. You can apply the lessons of the L2Ork ensemble to put together your own Linux audio machine. They’ve even further-documented the process of making PLOrk’s signature “salad bowl” speakers. And you can do it all without breaking the bank.


I got the chance to speak with Dr. Ivica Ico Bukvic, director of the Linux Laptop Orchestra and the DSISIS Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio at Virginia Tech.

CDM: What is your software rig for this ensemble?

Ivica: We basically use Ubuntu 9.04 (vanilla) with our own custom-built rt kernel, which apart from solid performance also offers full support of standby/hibernate/external monitor, webcam, wireless, bluetooth, etc. We also have various patches/scripts that deal with chronic UI bugs (e.g. order of panel icons in gnome getting trashed whenever a resolution is changed).

Basically, our configuration supports every single functionality of MSI Wind netbooks, which we use as the backbone of the orchestra.

FWIW, our setup offers pretty darn cool price point. The entire setup (MSI Wind, UA-1G soundcard, hemi speaker, [Nintendo] Wiimote/Nunchuk, all the cables/accessories, headset, and case) comes down to approximately $700/seat which arguably makes it as cheap as an iPhone setup, except you get to enjoy flexibility of using a laptop (ok, a netbook :-).


What music software are you using?

Our audio platform is currently exclusively [multimedia patching environment] Pd-extended 0.42.5 (running through [low-latency audio server] JACK) which we’ve also customized to allow advanced GUI setup (e.g. per-patcher configurable background, menu/ontop/resize/scrollbar toggles, what is IMHO better scrolling algorithm than what we currently have) as well as integrated several new objects whose source we are about to release (our multithreaded version of the Wiimote object for Linux has been already posted on the Pd-list a couple weeks ago, and it fully supports Wiimotes/Nunchuks without any interruptions to the Pd’s audio thread).

What do you do to get Ubuntu running properly?

Basically, it’s lightly-modded Ubuntu 9.04 that allows us to support all the hardware on the netbook, thus offering a quality desktop experience as well as RT audio performance. The kernel is custom-built 2.6.29-rc6-rt3. We have it available for download from a temporary folder off of my personal site
(http://ico.bukvic.net/Linux/). Once we clean everything up we will actually generate a full HD image and offer it for public download in hope to allow people to load that thing and thus allow them to have the best possible out-of-box experience (obviously as far as MSI Wind is concerned).

Is the hemispherical speaker something readers could build?

There are probably dozen videos on the VTDISIS Youtube channel that are designed to help potential L2Ork adopters build their own speakers, from cannibalizing/retrofitting the amps to improve their performance, to building cables and final assembly.



Rehearsal video shows how the L2Ork work out playing and soundmaking as an ensemble.

A quick look at how to make your own hemispherical speaker pod:

Local news coverage:

Virginia Tech students demo new laptop orchestra [WSLS10 NBC]

Laptop orchestra at Virginia Tech gives people an affordable alternative [WDBJ7]

More videos, and lots of how-to’s on the speakers (including the conclusion of the video above), are available on the VTDISIS channel:


Got more questions for the ensemble? Let us know.

I’d definitely like to offer, as well, some information on how to make Ubuntu work this well for you, and how to learn Ubuntu, Pd, JACK, and other free tools, in a way that’s beginner-friendly. That sounds like a decent New Years’ Resolution.

In the meantime, it’s worth mentioning that if you aren’t excited about the prospect of custom-configuring kernels yourself, the Indamixx Linux laptop we’ve featured previously is pre-configured in a similar way; the netbook I’m testing now even runs on the same MSI netbook. And that also, in turn, illustrates how research and volunteer efforts can go hand-in-hand with commercial solutions:


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