Think Bigger

It seems so sensible: Add voice to text messages. A smart phone is still a phone, designed to transmit sound. Which is why I found myself completely entranced by utellit, a small Chicago startup, at a recent “pitch” evening sponsored local website Technori

Founder Rishi Khullar’s epiphany? Profound annoyance at the rote Facebook response to the news of a friend’s birthday, i.e. “Happy Birthday!” scrawled endlessly on the celebrant’s wall. “Lame,” thought Khullar. Wouldn’t it be nicer to leave an old-fashioned voice message, but in new-fangled way? 

Wouldn’t it be in nicer still, thought I, to use the tech for humanitarian work or disaster response? Imagine emergency workers surveying a neighborhood leveled by an earthquake, recording detailed messages of the scene, then tucking them into geocoded text messages as shortened urls? This could take crisismapping to a whole new level. 

So exciting were the the possibilities, I whipped out an email to some of the best and brightest I know working in the humanitarian space. “Am I having a morning coffee moment, or is this really a good idea?”

It turns out it’s a really good idea. 

So much so, that many have been working on it, using open source tools. Eduardo Jezierski, CTO of InSTEDD* wrote:

…As ICT4D (ed. note: internet and communication technology for development) / social media / apps reach lower and lower swaths of the “pyramid,” voice becomes an increased need. Maternal child health services are not for doctors anymore: They involve mothers. The best, most valuable information post crisis is generated by—and curated by—the affected populations themselves, in their own language. 

Except from some privileged areas where text-based systems don’t run into the literacy, scripting, and dialect issues; voice is the key to involving a broader set of the population.

But what was fairly easy for the utellit team to set up here in the U.S. is much trickier elsewhere in the world, where smart phones are rare, telco infrastructure spotty and API’s come with lots of strings attached. 

All of this leaves a huge empowerment gap—communities can’t invent and deploy their own voice-like systems…

At InSTEDD our interest is in enabling a hundred apps like these bloom (without a dependency on iPhones, at least until they are common in rural india), invented by those that are part of, or close to, the communities with the needs; and (designed to be) integrated into the likes of Medic Mobile and Ushahidi.

We want any developer (wherever… in Nigeria…) that comes up with an idea like utellit to be able to implement it in days.

Working with Google.org and USAID, Ed’s team has been busy simplifying the creation of voice services to make them easier to build.  

We are building on top of open source switches (Asterisk/FreeSWITCH) direct VoIP integration and in some cases hardware integration to help folks build voice apps. 

These apps can span DIY-level for a few users; to national scale services by taking an approach similar to what we did with Nuntium

We are providing a simple HTTP API anyone can code to from any programming language to build almost any app they imagine; and then below that API  we allow a mix of rapid-deployment or operator-class “gateways” for the calls. 

Nicolas di Tada, InSTEDD’s Director or Platform Engineering provides more background and detail: Verboice - Listen and respond to the voice of your community.

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When Steve Jobs died, Wired writer Tim Carmody wrote eloquently about the profound impact of the iPod in the life of his young autistic son: 

…It may be a stretch to say Steve Jobs invented the iPod Touch or most of the technologies contained in it. But Steve Jobs certainly put it in my son’s hands, both by making it a sub-$200 device (and in our case, giving it away free with a laptop) and by helping to create an ecosystem of software applications for people with disabilities — perhaps especially communication disabilities…

The iPod wasn’t invented for people with disabilities, but nonetheless proved an answer to many prayers. That led to an interesting feedback look. The demo video for Siri, the new voice-command assistant, ends with a blind woman using her iPod to confirm a dinner date. 

Too often, startup tech pitches focus on a single, narrowly defined “haiku” problem: 

Hate waiting in line? / Pre-order equals happy / Download app today

Yet true breakthrough innovation demands taking the blinders off and noticing other possibilities (think Robin Williams pondering the potential of a pink scarf). A single brilliant insight can address many needs and trigger cascades of additional insights.

To think bigger, first you must begin to see bigger.

—  J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

* full disclosure: the TrackerNews Project was incubated at InSTEDD