Textonic http://textonic.org an open-source interface for Amazon's Mechanical Turk Sat, 09 May 2009 07:40:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.2 Design for UNICEF – Textonic.org http://textonic.org/2009/05/09/design-for-unicef-textonicorg/ http://textonic.org/2009/05/09/design-for-unicef-textonicorg/#comments Sat, 09 May 2009 06:00:28 +0000 admin http://textonic.org/?p=123 cross-posted at lehrblogger.com

Textonic.org is now live!

Recognizing that Textonic was a larger project than I was going to be able to finish in my free time over the summer (or that my group was going to be able to finish in our collective free time), I decided that the project would benefit from a more formal web presence than a handful of blog posts and a GitHub page. I registered a domain, set up WordPress, presented what we had accomplished, laid out what there is to be done, and tried to create a place where people could express their interest in getting involved.

The Conversation page on the new site is of particular interest. I’m using a Twitter search for the term ‘textonic’ as a sort of guestbook or message board. People who find the site and are interested can look to see who else has been there as well as when they expressed interest. Twitter itself can serve as a way for them to get in touch. The intransient* and public (since all of a user’s followers will also see the tweets) nature of these expressions of interest will help to catalyze the formation of a community around the project.

Credit for this idea goes to @n8han (who writes the blog Coderspiel) – I first saw it on his site for Databinder Dispatch. In addition, recent ITP graduate @joshbg2k created something similar for his √úberbaster project.

*Note that Twitter’s search API only exposes that last ~3 months of tweets, so at some point I’ll need to archive the messages so that the entire conversation history is displayed.

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Design for UNICEF – Detextive* http://textonic.org/2009/03/11/design-for-unicef-detextive/ http://textonic.org/2009/03/11/design-for-unicef-detextive/#comments Wed, 11 Mar 2009 13:19:22 +0000 admin http://textonic.org/?p=7 cross-posted at lehrblogger.com

*We might not actually use this name, but I like it and am going to enjoy it, at least for now.

Our RapidSMS/Mechanical Turk project is moving forward. Last week we met with the software development team at UNICEF that built RapidSMS, re-focused our efforts on creating a tool to process incoming SMS messages with Mechanical Turk, and divided out the tasks before our next meeting. I thought about what specific features we would need to provide to administrators of the system in the field for them to be able to set up and configure the system to work with RapidSMS. I made a few slides to present the ideas to our group, and the deck is below.

(I made both this presentation and the previous Meetapp presentation with 280 Slides, a web-based presentation editor made by a startup called 280 North. Give it a try – I find it great for sharing presentations, and I prefer it to working with Google Docs.)

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Mobile Tech for Social Change Barcamp http://textonic.org/2009/02/25/mobile-tech-for-social-change-barcamp/ http://textonic.org/2009/02/25/mobile-tech-for-social-change-barcamp/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2009 19:13:43 +0000 admin http://textonic.org/?p=5 cross-posted at lehrblogger.com

Last Saturday I attended the Mobile Tech for Social Change barcamp. From their website –

Mobile Tech 4 Social Change Barcamps are local events for people passionate about using mobile technology for social impact and to make the world a better place. Each event includes interactive discussions, hands-on-demos, and collaborations about ways to use, deploy, develop and promote mobile technology in health, advocacy, economic development, environment, human rights, citizen media, to name a few areas. Participants for Mobile Tech 4 Social Change barcamps include nonprofits, mobile app developers, researchers, donors, intermediary organizations, and mobile operators.

The event began with a talk (via Skype!) from Ethan Zuckerman, who I had seen speak previously in my Applications class last semester. He’s been involved in various service projects in Africa and is a co-founder of Global Voices Online, a community brought together by ‘bridgebloggers’ that translate posts between languages and cultures. His most salient and useful point was that mobile technology was most powerful when it was paired with another medium, such as FM radio.
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I went to three breakout sessions. The first was given by a few people from the Innovations Team at UNICEF and a couple of students from Columbia working on the aforementioned Malawi project. I had seen some of what they presented before, but got to play with the RapidAndroid version of the RapidSMS software (which runs on a G1 mobile phone), and I saw some sample database inputs and SMS form instructions. In addition, I learned that while initial SMS error rates have been high in the pilot studies, the system will respond asking the user to resend the message, and this feedback loop is effective at teaching users to send correctly formatted SMS messages. My group in the Design for UNICEF class will continue with our Mechanical Turk project – there will still be unparseable messages or messages that don’t get resent – but it will be good to keep this in mind as we develop.

In between sessions I saw a demo from an MIT PhD student named Nadav Ahrony at the Viral Communications group at the Media Lab. He was working on a not-yet-released general platform for development of wifi/bluetooth peer-to-peer mobile applications. He had built a demo application that would let people associate their phones with a particular group of phones, and then automatically sync content on these phones over an ad-hoc network. The most interesting use case he suggested: if a protester takes a photo with the device, and there is risk that the device might be confiscated, it will automatically be downloaded by the others in the group immediately after being taken, so even if the original device is lost the data is not.

The second breakout session was lead by Josh Nesbit, a current undergrad at Stanford graduating this year. He presented an SMS-based project he did in Malawi for hospitals and the surrounding villages that used FrontlineSMS, an alternative SMS platform (that isn’t necessarily comparable in aim to RapidSMS). More information on that project is available here.

The last breakout session was for mobile developers, and we had an interesting conversation about developing for Android. Overall I enjoyed the day and found it useful, and I’m looking forward to going to the next m4change barcamp.

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Photos are from Meredith Whitefield on Flickr, thanks!

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Design for UNICEF – RapidSMS and Mechanical Turk http://textonic.org/2009/02/20/design-for-unicef-rapidsms-and-mechanical-turk/ http://textonic.org/2009/02/20/design-for-unicef-rapidsms-and-mechanical-turk/#comments Fri, 20 Feb 2009 07:18:08 +0000 admin http://textonic.org/?p=1 cross-posted at lehrblogger.com

This is my first post about Clay Shirky’s Spring 2009 class Design for UNICEF (syllabus). Our task is to design, build, and deploy solutions to improve the lives of people in Africa under the age of thirty. We’ve spent the first part of the semester in small groups iterating through a huge number of potential ideas, but now things have begun to solidify.

I’m excited to be working in a group with Thomas Robertson, Lina Maria Giraldo, Amanda Syarfuan, and Yaminie Patodia. Our project in a sentence: We plan to extend UNICEF’s existing RapidSMS platform and RapidSMS-based projects to use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online task marketplace to provide automated correction of malformatted SMS database inputs.

RapidSMS (link 1, link 2) is a project developed by Evan Wheeler, Adam Mckaig and others in UNICEF’s Division of Communication. It is designed to be an extensible platform for sending and receiving SMS text messages using a computer server. Mobile phone penetration in Africa is relatively high and growing quickly, and SMS is a powerful tool that can be applied to a wide variety of UNICEF-type projects. It is particularly useful for quickly aggregating large amounts of data from the field; where previous methods required the tedious process of faxing in and compiling paper forms, mobile phones can be used to submit that data quickly via text message, and this ultimately allows coordinators to make better decisions about the allocation of limited resources. RapidSMS allows for automatic insertion of SMS messages into a centralized database, as well as the export of this data in human- and machine-readable formats (such as graphs and Excel files). It has already been deployed for a food supply distribution project in Ethiopia (link) and a child malnutrition monitoring project in Malawi (link).

One challenge for such SMS-based database input systems is the problem of malformed texts inputs – users won’t always know the proper message format or might be in a hurry and mis-type a key. It’s practically impossible to design a system that can handle all database inputs, so as a result valuable information gets thrown out, even though it is present in the messages. An actual person might be able to successfully parse many of these malformed messages and determine which pieces of information from the SMS goes in which database fields; UNICEF workers, however, generally have more pressing tasks while in the field.

We plan to extend the open-source RapidSMS system to have the functionality of automatically sending these malformed SMS database inputs to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for conversion into proper database inputs. (Mechanical Turk is an online marketplace that automatically pairs tasks that are simple (yet too hard for a computer to do) with people who want to do them for money (often just a few cents).) This RapidSMS extension could then be integrated into existing projects mentioned above, making them more scalable and more effective.

I’ll post more as the project progresses throughout the semester, and please leave a comment with any feedback!

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