Global Mobile

Airline PR Gets Outsourced to Twitter

The next time you’re stuck at the airport thanks to a wicked Nor’easter, Twitter just might be your ticket to the next flight home. Reporting for NY Times yesterday, Kim Severson explains how stranded travelers are turning to Twitter to get valuable help while skipping the hours-long wait in lines or on the airline's hotline:

While the airlines' reservation lines required hours of waiting -- if people could get through at all -- savvy travelers were able to book new reservations, get flight information, and track lost luggage... Since Monday, nine Delta Air Lines agents with special Twitter training have been rotating shifts to help travelers wired enough to know how to "DM," or direct message. Many other airlines are doing the same as a way to help travelers cut through the confusion of a storm that has grounded thousands of flights this week.

The article highlights the experience of one traveler, Danielle Heming, who’s flight home was canceled after a five-hour delay earlier this week. Rather than linger in long lines and deal with overwhelmed JetBlue agents, she pulled out her iPhone, did some quick flight availability research, and sent a message to JetBlue’s Twitter account. “Within an hour,” reports Severson, “she had a seat on another airline and a refund from JetBlue.”

Not everyone who DM’d the airline’s Twitter sought to find new flights or tickets. Many frustrated travelers simply used this digital outlet to vent their anger. In fact, more often than finding new seats for a customer, a customer service agent’s role is simply “to listen to people complain.” In many cases, Twitter provided a forum for people to commiserate with each other in a truly 21st-century form of digital therapy. Other stranded travelers viewed the airlines’ Twitter channels as a quicker, more efficient source of updated information from digital PR reps.

Switching PR to Twitter has surely has its downfalls. For one thing, it’s tough to arrange a full new itinerary between a representative and a customer within the confines of 140 characters. Also, says Severson, these Twitter reps aren’t necessarily ticketing agents, so there’s no guarantee they’ll have access to the latest flight information and seats. And airlines have only a handful of PR reps working Twitter -- compared to thousands on the phones --  so customers might enjoy better success using conventional communication methods.

Perhaps most importantly, Twitter remains “the domain of elite activist customers,” explains Lee Rainie, director of Pew’s Internet and Life Project. Only 8 percent of people with access to Internet use Twitter, so the number of travelers who use the microblogging service pales in comparison to those who would rather stand in line or call in to the airline. The Digital Divide also comes into play. This new, more efficient form of customer service leaves the less tech-savvy travelers behind with the long lines and annoying “hold” music on the phone.

This week’s East Coast storm stranded hundreds of thousands of passengers, but thanks to Twitter, fewer travelers were isolated from access to flight information, replacement tickets, and lost baggage. But as is often the case with new media, Twitter isn’t a save-all panacea, and it alone isn’t going to transform the way airports deal with delays. Traditional forms of communication, like booking a ticket over the phone or at the airline counter, will continue to serve a significant portion of the public. But for that small (but growing) Twitter-savvy 8 percent, new media and mobile phones provide a new level of convenience and efficiency at the airport that musn’t be ignored.

Traveling with Augmented Reality

Earlier this month, DK Publishing, the printing house behind the popular Eyewitness travel guides, released an impressive Paris app for the iPad. The app provides mostly the same wealth of information available on the printed version, but it takes advantage of the iPad’s interface with visually stunning features and various levels of interactivity to personalize the travel guide. Introducing the app, NY Times’ Gregory Schmidt explains some of the cool features:

An interactive map pinpoints hotels, restaurants, and other Parisian accommodations, which is convenient if you're staying, for instance, in the Marais and want to find a nearby cafe, bar, post office, or Metro stop. A tap on a pinpoint reveals more information, like an address, a telephone number, and hours of operation. To help navigate the streets of Paris, the iPad's GPS chip reveals your location on the map, which can flip over to reveal a color-coded Metro map.

Sure, you can find the print edition online for just a few bucks, but the consumer clearly stands to get much more out of the 236MB, $17 iPad version. One of the coolest features allows users to select a heart icon at any location to remember their favorite restaurants, shops, or attractions. But as one review points out, the full potential of digital travel guides isn’t nearly grasped:

What DK had done, like many publishers, is translate their beautiful printed guides into an app. What they haven't done, and [what] perhaps is the next step, is throw away the book and re-imagine the guide just as an app.

The developing technology of augmented reality could be travel publishers’ answer to this problem. AR uses a mobile device's camera, GPS, and gyroscope to display information about users’ surroundings in real time, enabling them to merge the physical world with a wealth of digital interactive information. NDN wrote about AR 16 months ago, explaining that device hardware at that time was just too limited to support AR apps, but predicting that the arrival of Android and tablet devices would help get mainstream devices up to speed.

That time has arrived, as “superphone” devices are now powerful enough to run demanding AR programs. With this capable hardware have arrived amazing AR apps such as Google Goggles that improve anything from medicine to mechanics. But digital travel guides haven’t really tapped into this vast AR potential.

As USA Today reported earlier this year, small-scale AR projects have enjoyed modest success in the digital travel guides market. One Beatles-themed app displays an icon of the group when the phone points towards Abbey Road. The RealSki iPhone app helps skiers identify runs and find lodges as they hit the slopes. Lonely Planet, a popular competitor of DK Eyewitness, has released a simple AR iPhone app for ten U.S. cities which displays basic information when the phone is pointed at various landmarks. But as one review explains, the technology behind this app is “clumsy” and the offering is very limited. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

Eyewitness’ iPad Paris app is also a step in the right direction. But to truly “re-imagine” the guide book as a digital app, it needs to capitalize on AR technology. The future of digital travel guides will feature two levels of interactivity working in concert with one another: Between the user and the device; and between the device and its physical surroundings. The next iPad, slated to boast not one but two cameras, should be DK’s opportunity to radically transform travel guides (imagine an app with all the features described earlier -- but when you point the device at a row of restaurants, their menus appear side-by-side for a quick comparison) by capitalizing on augmented reality.

A couple lessons can be learned here. The first is that AR apps are clearly limited by the sophistication of the hardware of devices in the market. The second lesson is that this barrier is less of a concern than ever before, and developers and publishers alike should take advantage of the vast potential of augmented reality to make our travel experiences more enjoyable, easy, innovative, and interactive.

Reinventing Public Participation with SMS

A few weeks back, Allison Arieff of NY Times contributed a thoughtful piece about Give A Minute, a new SMS-driven project launched by CEOs for CitiesUS Initiative. The program asks citizens of Chicago to text their ideas on how to make the public walk, bike, and take public transportation more often. Similar projects are slated to launch next year in Memphis, New York, and San Jose. So far thousands of Chicagoans have submitted ideas ranging from implementing greener buses to clearing bike lanes of snow more frequently.

Quoting Jake Barton of Local Projects (the design agency that built the program), Arieff explains how Give A Minute consciously distances itself from “the often-overrated concept of crowdsourcing,” in which users submit ideas and vote on their favorites. Rather, says Barton:

It's about people in a specific neighborhood saying 'let's put in a garden here'... I'd say it's a more nuanced approach to crowdsourcing, less the winner-takes-all model but rather getting a group to rally around something specific. The entire process is designed for maximum participation to some kind of constructive end. The basic idea was to reinvent public participation in the 21st century.

The website's format reflects this innovative approach. Unlike other policy-centered crowdsourcing projects, such as the G.O.P.’s America Speaking Out initiative, there’s no opportunity for users to vote on other ideas. Likewise, there’s no reward for the submission with the most votes. Instead, explains Good Design’s Alissa Walker, “The best ideas get a text or email back. There are certain city leaders... who are charged with sending personal responses to their favorite ideas” that include advice on where to turn next, as Arieff clarifies:

In tracking responses, Local Projects will be able to point to particular ideas and causes in common, and direct individuals into larger efforts through other technology platforms like MeetUp or Kickstarter... it's not NIMBY [a pejorative term for invasive or top-down policy], it's 'how can this community work together to make change happen?'

In the case of Give A Minute, building this community depends on the fluid interaction between citizens and the government through SMS and the Web. Give A Minute capitalizes on the omnipresence of mobile phones in major cities to give the public an easy avenue to make its voice heard. Indeed, the project’s marketing strategy reveals its dependence on mobile; rather than advertise on TV or in newspapers, Give A Minute concentrates its ads on trains and bus shelters -- places where Chicagoans are most likely idle, already with phone in hand checking the latest scores or news. So sending out a quick text to Give A Minute headquarters is easy and only takes a couple seconds out of their day.

Despite the convenience of mobile-enabled citizen participation, a couple concerns must be addressed by the folks behind Give A Minute. Who determines the “best ideas” that earn responses and guidance for other forms of engagement and organization? Logistically, how carefully can three people sift through thousands of submissions and respond to them in a meaningful way?

Most crucially, what are Chicagoans expecting out of this initiative? When I text in an idea such as “play classical music on the L,” I expect a response, and I expect a reasonable explanation for whether this suggestion will be followed. Some citizens might feel disenfranchised when all they receive from the city is a thank-you and a direction to a MeetUp group. Others will read this guidance on their mobile phone, head to, and engage in a meaningful process of citizen action.

It’s that second group that projects like Give A Minute seek out. With the help of mobile phones and the Internet, this new initiative holds a lot of potential to bring public participation into the 21st century and empower citizens in hyper-local organizing and policymaking.

This Week in Global Mobile | December 24, 2010

At times it's difficult to keep pace with the latest global mobile developments. I hope this selection of news stories from the past week will help you navigate the growing global network of connectivity:

  • Pew released ap presentation to the Federal HIV/AIDS Web Council of their latest findings regarding mobile use and social networks in health care.
  • A new smartphone app helps color-blind users by using the phone’s camera to slightly alter the colors and hues on the screen. Nick Bilton at NY Times has more to say on the advent of augmented reality.
  • At the first-ever Symposium on Indigenous Uses of the Internet, various native communities in Brazil discussed how the Web provides key services such as territorial surveillance and government service registration.
  • More than 700 billion (yes, billion) YouTube videos were watched world-wide in 2010, reported YouTube. That’s over 100 views for every single person on the planet.
  • Last week the U.S. government launched, an online visual guide which tracks the $37bn in federal aid managed each year by the State Department and USAID.
  • Yesterday Pew released a study indicating that over a quarter of American adults used their mobile phones to engage with the 2010 midterm elections.
  • Mobile commerce sales in the United States exploded from $1.4bn in 2009 to $3.4bn this year, reported ABI Research. Across the pond, nearly one half of all Britons expect to buy Christmas gifts from their mobiles.
  • As more federal agencies begin to incorporate social media, a new report from IBM warned that they are insufficiently prepared to manage and record social media use.
  • Ory Okolloh, a founder of the crisis-mapping service Ushahidi, was appointed to serve as Google’s new Policy Manager for Africa.
  • The F.C.C. announced the Open Internet Apps contest which challenges developers to create mobile apps that “empower consumers to monitor and protect Internet Openess.”
  • The South Korean government threatened to prosecute citizens who post Facebook or Twitter updates that praise North Korea, reports ReadWriteWeb.
  • An IBM report predicted that holographic phone calls consisting of 3D images being projected from mobile devices will enter the market by as soon as 2015.

Happy Holidays!

FCC on Net Neutrality: A Step Forward

The FCC approved new rules yesterday protecting net neutrality for the first time, bringing to a close a turbulent year of debate over how to best protect the open Internet and ensure the global network remains a vital platform for innovation. While the full text of the action is not yet available, key excerpts are available here, and it's clear that there will be three new rules governing the ability of internet service providers to regulate the flow of information over their networks. 

First, internet service providers must be transparent in the ways they manage the flow of information over their networks. Second, providers of fixed broadband access are forbidden to block any legal content, applications, services or devices from the network. Third, providers may not "unreasonably discriminate" among content or users. These rules build on the principles laid out in the FCC's 2005 Internet Policy Statement, codifying the ideal of an open, non-discriminatory internet into enforceable rules for the first time.

Reflecting the longstanding tenor of the net neutrality dispute, reaction to the FCC Report and Order has been dominated by criticism from the right (including FCC Commissioners McDowell and Baker, who voted against the action) that the rules are unnecessary and liable to stifle investment, and criticism from the left (including Commissioners Clyburn and Copps, who joined Chairman Genachowski in approving the measure) that the rules don't go far enough in protecting the interests of internet users.

In particular, public interest groups and open internet advocates have criticized the FCC for excluding mobile networks from most of the protections afforded wired broadband. While blocking competitors' apps and services will be outlawed, mobile network operators will retain a broad ability to manage their networks and prioritize content. As Chairman Genachowski explained in his remarks, there are technical issues that affect mobile that don't exist on wired networks-- there's simply less capacity on mobile networks, and without an ability to actively manage traffic, mobile networks could quickly become overwhelmed and incapacitated by a few hyperactive users. 

Mobile is also different from wired broadband in that, for most consumers, the mobile industry is genuinely competitive. If you're a Sprint customer, and Sprint blocks you from using third-party applications to pigeonhole you into using their own services, most people in this country are covered by at least three other major mobile networks.  As the mobile ecosystem continues to evolve, we'll have to hope that the FCC will remain vigilant, and if anti-competitive, anti-consumer behavior by mobile networks operators becomes the norm, they will step in with stronger protections. For now, the FCC's "measured steps" on mobile broadband are a prudent approach to regulating a dynamic industry.

The Report and Order also raises concerns about two other areas, without specifically regulating either. First, the FCC outlines four reasons why "pay for priority" arrangements-- whereby a third party would pay the network operator to favor certain traffic over other-- would probably violate the "unreasonable discrimination" rule. Second, the document describes "specialized services," distinct from the internet but riding the same wires, including voice and video over IP. The FCC again pledges to monitor these services, and ensure that they're not being used to evade the net neutrality rules. For now, we'll have to take them at their word. As on mobile platforms, there's extraordinary opportunity for innovative new services to arrive via broadband, and before there's evidence of anti-consumer behavior by network providers, there's no need to discourage innovation with preemptive rules.

In a blog post yesterday, the Chairman of our Globalization Initiative, Dr. Rob Shapiro, celebrated the end of the net neutrality fight. I hope he's right, but I'm afraid this issue may linger for some time. Most troublingly, the FCC's Report and Order does not stand on the strongest legal footing.  After the DC Circuit Court ruled earlier this year against the FCC in its suit charging Comcast with illegal content discrimination, the FCC's authority to regulate the internet has been in some legal doubt. This lack of clarity should be troubling for both sides-- network operators, because it continues uncertainty about the legal framework in which they will be working, and consumer advocates, because it puts these new rules protecting net neutrality in jeopardy. Ultimately, congressional action may be required to clarify the FCC's authority and to establish clear rules of the road for this dynamic, exciting and important part of our economy.

Despite these ongoing issues, I applaud the FCC and Chairman Genachowski for finding a compromise on net neutrality that, for the first time, protects our open internet and the interests of internet users without impeding network providers in their continued investment in building the internet's infrastructure.

This Week in Global Mobile | December 17, 2010

At times it's difficult to keep pace with the latest global mobile developments. I hope this selection of news stories from the past week will help you navigate the growing global network of connectivity:

  • On Tuesday the F.C.C. held a forum at a Washington D.C. high school to discuss the risks of heavy Internet usage among teens.
  • Kenya sits at the “tipping point” of a tremendous surge of economic growth driven by the telecoms industry, reports the World Bank.
  • China launched a state-run Twitter-esque service called Red Microblog in an attempt to harness new media to help spread the government’s political message.
  • Facebook churned out a beautiful visualization of what the world looks like according to social networks, showing significant connections linking people across the globe.
  • Secretary of State Clinton released the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, a report filled with references to 21st-century statecraft.
  • In Korea a service similar to Skype that allows free Internet phone calls via smart phones is drawing fire from leading telecommunication companies. 
  • The average U.S. consumer now spends as much time online as watching television, reports Forrestor Research.
  • A team of Twitter researchers analyzed the more than 25 billion tweets posted in 2010, giving us a unique glance at the most important topics of the year. Also check out Twitter 2010: Year In Review for more statistics.
  • Monday was the biggest global mobile shopping day of all time on eBay, with an increase of 165% worldwide on purchases made from mobile devices.
  • Personal Democracy Forum held a symposium on Internet Freedom surrounding the WikiLeaks buzz. Visit the event archive to follow the conversation. 
  • Andy Rubin, Google’s mobile expert, said that Asian countries are going “berserk” for Android phones, particularly in South Korea with 300,000 new Android phones are activated each day.
  • TIME magazine hired its first-ever chief digital officer to oversee the incorporation of mobile devices like the iPad into its business model. Later in the week, the editors named Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as TIME’s Person of the Year.
  • On Tuesday all Air Force personnel were banned from accessing the websites of the Times, the Guardian, and 22 other news outlets that publish Wikileaks’ stolen cables.
  • 1 in 4 Spanish teenagers falls victim to cyber bullying, although the E.U. reports cyber bullying averages at a much lower 5 percent.
  • Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society announced a major “Digital Public Library of America” initiative to ensure that “the cultural heritage of our country is available at your fingertips.”
  • The U.S. Army wants to issue every soldier an iPhone or Android device (and pay for the monthly bills) to help with everything from checking e-mail to receiving real-time intelligence in the battlefield.
  • Finally, check out the video below of incredible mobile statistics from 2010 (courtesy of MobileFuture) and Nielsen’s white paper on mobile youth around the world.

Digital Cookery

NPR's Morning Edition just ran heartwarming but sadly flawed piece about how the cookbook "might be safe from the digital revolution." Sorry, cookbooks, they shouldn't have gotten your hopes up like that. The piece is hung up on two reasons why apps & mobile devices could never work in the kitchen: first, the "sticky fingers/expensive device" argument, second, the "apps aren't exactly like books" argument.  From the opening of the segment:

It's hard to imagine how the Web could replicate a cookbook's well-organized recipes or enticing illustrations

Actually, I don't think it's very hard to imagine that at all.

"People are very busy," she says. "They're maybe on the bus thinking, 'What am I going to have for dinner tonight? I've got to go to a shop and get it.' [The app is there] to help you shop."


What it's least useful for is in the kitchen," she adds. "You don't want a phone or any similar device right where you are spluttering with the pan."

No! Ten years ago, a device with the firepower of today's smartphones would have been the size of a ham, and would have cost as much as a gallon of extra fine black truffle oil. Technology evolves. It's easy to imagine, a few years from now, a device that combines all the functionality of an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab into a device that's even more spaghetti sauce-proof than any book, and cheap enough to be your third, fourth, or fifth networked device. The piece continues:

"I think there's an inherent flaw in thousands or tens of thousands of individual cookbooks as apps," he says. "And the flaw is that the more you have the harder it is to use them."

"And as it's set up now, you would probably need to search each app individually, according to whatever criteria that app had. And in fact, most of the recipes in those apps wouldn't have been tagged with any of those terms."

The segment goes on to theorize about a "super app" wherein celebrity chefs could get together to sell their recipes for a small fee. Fuhgeddaboudit. Just as the proliferation of bloggers has diluted the power of the newspaper columnist, anybody looking to sell a recipe on the internet is going to drown in competition from regular, everyday cooks sharing delicious recipes of their own. And rather than isolating themselves in "tens of thousands" of individual cookbook apps, a platform will emerge to give cooks an easy, free space to find, share, and add their own recipes.

So what do I think is going to happen? Within the next decade (if not sooner), you'll have a specialized device in your kitchen-- smudgeproof, splashproof, burnproof-- that talks with your other devices (so the recipe you find on your smartphone on the way home appears on the screen in your kitchen),  and runs an elegant piece of software integrating the recipe with video and a social layer that allows you to find recipes recommended by friends and share tips back with them. Cool, right? Until that day, I'll have to go back to putting my iPad in a Ziploc bag, and going that route...


In the SAIS Review: Challenges & Opportunities of a Networked World

The current (summer-fall) issue of the SAIS Review focuses on the impact of technological innovation on international affairs, with a number of great authors and thinkers looking at the issue from a variety of angles. From the issue's forward:

This issue was first conceived as an examination of the impact of technological innovation on international affairs. In the wake of the Iranian "Twitter Revolution" and the creation of a U.S. Cyber Command, it became clear that innovations in network technology were significant enough to be our sole focus. The substance of international relations-the manifold daily interactions, some cooperative, some conflictive among societies and states-are increasingly played out in a connected cyberspace. This development increasingly holds the potential to alter the dynamic of power within and among states.

It also presents policymakers with a host of new and complex challenges. On one level, individual societies are still grappling with the question of how to accommodate networks in their national lives. At the same time, how any individual society approaches the Internet has immediate foreign policy implications given the interconnectedness of today's world. In short, the rapid advance of technological innovation in the cyber realm has created a demand for equal innovation in the policy realm. This issue explores the policy implications of this remarkable technological milieu, shedding light on both the threats and opportunities of international relations in cyberspace.

Now, there is a certain irony in such content being placed behind a paywall, but such is the state of academic publishing. Perhaps you can get the student in your life to lend you their university login information.  

It's worth it, with articles from Alec Ross on State's approach to internet freedom, Min Jiang on China's "internet sovereignty," Bruce Etling, Rob Faris, and John Palfrey on the "promise and fragility of online organizing," Patrick Meier and Rob Munro on the "potential of the Internet to facilitate political resistance and disaster response," Maja Andjelkovic on the potential for innovation-- particularly on mobile devices-- to drive growth in the developing world, and my friend Neil Shenai writing with Teryn Norris on the "long-term innovation potential of the Chinese and U.S. economies." Among others.

Lots of interesting stuff.  Looking forward to diving into it all myself, and perhaps commenting here on Global Mobile. 

Language, Literacy, and Rising Mobile Adoption

The BBC had a good article this week about mobile-based learning tools. The piece doubled as a bit of self-promotion, as it discussed the BBC World Service Trust's own project, Janala, which uses brief audio lessons to teach English to poor Bangladeshis. The other story is about Nokia's Ovi Life tools, which has 6.3 million users in China, India and Indonesia, and just introduced in Nigeria. Nokia's service uses SMS messages to teach English, instead of voice.

Much of the article focuses on the challenge of delivering content that is locally relevant and appropriate. Nokia's service in Nigeria will use Hausa and pidgin English as available languages of instruction, just as they've used 11 regional Indian languages to make their service useful to Indians who don't speak Hindi. Janala teaches English with a Bangladeshi accent, rather than the Queen's, and replaced references to "tennis and hamburgers" with references to "cricket and rice."  All good stuff.

But the question I want to zero-in on here has to do with the different models of instruction: voice vs. SMS.  I don't want to take anything away from Nokia's service-- if they're reaching over six million people, with over one million repeat users, they're creating a valuable service. But around the world today there are more and more people who own mobile phones, and yet cannot read: people for whom SMS is useless.

In most countries, the literacy rate still exceeds the mobile penetration rate, but this won't be true for long. Take a look at the graph below, which charts the growth rates in mobile penetration in a sampling of developing countries over the past 15 years. South Africa is in there as a fully-saturated market, to give you a sense of what the mature S-curve looks like:

Extrapolate those trends forward to today, and it's a safe bet that 40-50% of Indians and Bangladeshis have a mobile phone, while the rate in Nigeria is creeping toward 60%. Literacy rates are still higher-- India's is around 66%, Nigeria's is about 72%, Bangladesh's is about 53%-- but those numbers grow more slowly, at only about 1 or 2 percentage points each year over the past fifteen years. Probably sometime in the next two to three years, more Bangladeshis will own mobile phones than are able to read. The same will likely be true in India and Nigeria within four-five years, if not sooner. 

This should perhaps change the way we think about tools-- not just learning tools, all tools-- on mobile. If, very soon, there's going to be a massive market of phone-owners without the ability to read, then how much can we make available by voice, as opposed to SMS? Earlier this year, I wrote about CGnet Swara, a citizen journalism service in Chhattisgarh, India, that's entirely-voice based. What about banking services? Healthcare services? Even better, how might voice and SMS hybrid services be used to improve literacy? 

(Mike Trucano wrote about one project working on that problem here, and covered another project here.)

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