Harnessing the Power of Mobile 'Beeping'

Parallel to my thinking about the prohibitive pricing of SMS in Africa [see my recent piece in Venture Beat], I've been thinking a lot about how to harness the pervasive and utterly free practice of 'beeping' [which takes place when a user places a call and quickly hanging up in order to send an (often) pre-arranged signal to another user such as 'come meet me now' or 'call me back'].

I'm curious to explore how 'beeping' can be used to collect information and serve as a platform for mobile services? Here are two good ideas.

'Beeping' as Instant Feedback and Poll-Taking
Imagine you are in Pader, one of the major towns in northern Uganda. During a drought, your community receives food aid in six different locations from six different donor agencies. As you walk into town, you see a billboard that asks: which of these six locations serves you best? Each location is tied to a mobile number. To vote, you just beep the appropriate number, and the votes are tallied by a simple piece of software on a computer attached to the six different phones. [the software would check for repeat numbers, ect] The same system could be used for conducting local elections.

'Beeping' as Coded Messages
Last night, I was re-watching Ashifi Gogo's talk earlier this year on GSM Networks at the Berkman Center. In his discussion of how asymmetric encryption is leveraged for his brilliant m-Pedigree project, he mentions that the next generation of such services may involve 'beeping.' For example, imagine you are planning your drive to work across central Accra in the morning and you wonder how much traffic is on the road. Gogo asks what if there was a short-code you could beep, and get a coded beep in response- one beep means the road is free of traffic; two beeps mean you better walk.
There is an open question as to whether mobile networks would actively push back on a high-profile 'beeping' project because it leverages their networks for free. It is important to note, however, tha most networks could probably handle over a million 'beeps' without significant use of their capacity.

The platform itself seems like something both development practitioners and entrepreneurs should be intensely interested in. What other 'beeping' innovations are possible?

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  • Jonathan Donner's Rules of Beeping:


    seems to be the canonical text on the behavioral side, and argues that beeping is "a form of code which, intentionally or not, serves to strengthen relationships and reinforce social norms." Where have NGOs and companies, of late, put this form of code to use productively?

    By Blogger Joshua, at 1:03 PM  

  • Please call me is the most important initiative leveraging USSD and beeping.


    "Please Call Me" (or PCM) messages evolved from the practice of "beeping," or calling someone and hanging up after a ring or two. Beeps, also known as missed calls or flashes, are a signal for the recipient to call someone back when the caller is low on airtime. Carriers started providing PCM messages free of charge after they found that the networks were getting inundated by millions of beeps a day. Studies estimate that between 20 and 30 percent of calls made each day in Africa are beeps. "It is widespread," said Informa analyst Devine Kofiloto in this Reuters article. "It is a concern for operators in African countries whose networks become congested depending on the time of day with calls they cannot bill for." Beeping is so prevalent in Africa that a whole culture has developed around the practice, notes Jonathan Donner in his paper "The Rules of Beeping: Exchanging Messages Via Intentional "Missed Calls" on Mobile Phones .

    By Blogger Joshua, at 5:03 PM  

  • Yeah, the beep takes as much on the resources as about a 40-second call, because of all the setting up that has to happen.

    Nonetheless, this is not a problem with the beepers (even if you look at it as a telco). It is a problem of the protocols and software that assume that a call that's been connected is likely going to be picked.

    The thing about dealing with the African tech market is that you are wrong, no matter who you are, until your product has been localised by time. The mobile telephony gear we use is informed by North America, even though Africa has more mobile phones than North America. Localisation is not just language (and this is something my fellow geeks should learn!) but also user behaviour. (In a culture that writes from left to right, re-arrange your icon order on the interface. In a culture that isn't materialistic, give lower prices and sell the subscribed base, instead of selling to the subscribed base. Et cetera, et cetera. In Africa, a call will likely not be picked, yet still carry the message!)

    I think it is a nice time to be in this industry. It is, to us, what the Internet was to you people some ten to fifteen years ago. Do you know what it is when every earning adult in the country (and on the continent) can be reached in real time? It's a bigger resource than all the oil wells of Arabia.
    My own startup ain't seated doing nothin'. ;o)
    Facebook and Twitter by SMS is the bit I'm least excited about, actually, even though it has got the most traffic.

    By Blogger The 27th Comrade, at 6:51 AM  

  • Mon Comrade! Its been so long. Why don't you develop a mobile beeping app so people can vote on stuff they care about and tie it into a paid service?

    What else are you working on?

    By Blogger Joshua, at 7:48 AM  

  • > Why don't you develop a mobile beeping app so people can vote on stuff they care about and tie it into a paid service?

    One could say I already have such a thing. It's not exactly beeping, but more like USSD. (This solves many beeping-related problems, but brings some along with its solutions. At least, it is simpler to integrate it into the networks.)

    My things are not yet out in the wild. But, yes, keep them eyes open. ;o)

    Beeping presented as a service - as in, users are encouraged to do it - makes telcos suspicious. It's costly, as you said. USSD faces no such psychological barriers. But it has its problems elsewhere.

    By Blogger The 27th Comrade, at 1:14 PM  

  • can you send me your gmail?

    I'm at goldstein.joshua@gmail.com

    By Blogger Joshua, at 3:23 PM  

  • Regarding the beeping: I wonder if the model limits it only to billboards and if that has a cost.

    I don't think a radio public service ad, for example, could afford to list multiple numbers to beep; there simply isn't time. Are certain audiences then going to be missed?

    By Anonymous Kevin Donovan, at 8:12 AM  

  • @Kevin

    I think you are getting at one of two main questions that aren't addressed in my post.

    (i) in what setting should a mobile beeping 'hack' be put to use? i.e. target a large community, or specific project recipient group;

    (ii) what is the best mechanism for delivering the poll...radio, billboard, ect.

    Of course the second one, which you address, will largely be determined by the answer to the first one. Short codes, which are sometimes difficult to get, can help mitigate the challenges.

    What do you think about (i)? My sense is that such a tool will likely be more effective in a small target group as opposed to a larger community.


    By Blogger Joshua, at 9:03 AM  

  • Also, with the rise of formal Please Call Me functions, are people still familiar with informal beeping? My South African friends are much more likely to use the MTN or Vodacom PCM code than informal beeping, so would a billboard encouraging beeping be understood? (Intuition: yes, but worth exploring.)

    But let's say it isn't, this is another reason to consider this for small scale efforts. (In addition to avoiding telcom scrutiny.)

    By Anonymous Kevin Donovan, at 9:00 AM  

  • One more thought: though the temptation is to use this for traditional development efforts, perhaps NGO work isn't as ideal.

    Could this be appealing to political parties? That would have the benefit of making telcom resistance less likely, no?

    Or would a business like this? Product design testing or used to build a list of interested consumers are two possibilities. This adds profit motivation to making this work (and might be appealing to companies due to its cheap cost).

    By Anonymous Kevin Donovan, at 9:04 AM  

  • @Kevin The Please Call Me phenomenon is interesting for this discussion. I wonder whether that would make a more or less difficult back-end software challenge. Also, PCM is not equally utilized in every country. In Uganda, for example, I didn't see much of it.

    By Blogger Joshua, at 10:57 AM  

  • It is nice feature to acquire the knowledge of mobile ringing or beeping intensity to be know by this site..
    With Regards
    Jazmin Wilss

    By Blogger Jazminwilss, at 5:40 AM  

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