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Jan. 24, 2013, 1:51 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

News Challenge winner Abayima takes a low-tech approach to communicating in a crisis

Activists, journalists, and others could use the mobile tool kit to share information on SIM cards the way files are shared on thumb drives.

Knight News Challenge winner Abayima wants to turn an ingenious hack for feature phones into a low-tech means of sharing information in unstable parts of the world. Instead of using your phone’s SIM card to hold on to your address book, Abayima would transform it into a storage drive for offline sharing. In parts of the world where the Internet is either down or monitored, Abayima would give activists, human rights workers, and journalists the ability to communicate simply by swapping SIMs.

Using its $150,000 award from Knight Foundation, Abayima will develop an open-source tool kit that will create a standard for writing and reading off SIM cards. Jon Gosier, founder of Appfrica, the company behind Abayima, said the project creates a secondary method of communication for areas of crisis. Abayima is currently finishing an alpha of its tool kit and preparing for a pilot project in Kenya, Gosier told me.

He began creating the software while working in Uganda. Specifically, he saw a need for activists to communicate during the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections; the government was reportedly monitoring text messages from citizens before to the election.

Tampering with the flow of information is not an unusual tactic in some corners of the world, whether in the form of widespread Internet censorship or slowing (or crashing) data networks. The reason these methods keep popping up, Gosier said, is because there is a familar choke point: service providers. “The problem is that all these forms of communications have a single point of failure,” he told me. And beyond the whims of governments, natural disasters and other emergencies can also help bring down data networks.

For the technically savvy, there are ways around network tampering: trying to use mesh networks when the Internet goes down, or encrypting messages when communications are being watched. But those methods may be too advanced or technically out of reach for some, he said. “If all these citizens and activists are relying on SMS as their main means of communications, and they don’t know those messages are being intercepted, or not hitting their intended target, that’s a problem,” he said.

Instead, Abayima offers a low-tech alternative communication that puts the emphasis on physical delivery systems. Think Sneakernet.

It’s a problem that disproportionately affects developing countries, particularly those where mobile phones can be the main access point for communication and local information. If you lose cell service after a hurricane in the U.S., you likely have other ways to get in touch with people. If you lose cell service or SMS in Uganda, it’s a different scenario, he said. “When those two means of communications go down, those two channels, you’re essentially voiceless, at least when it comes to digital communication,” he said.

At the heart of Abayima’s project is what Gosier calls the Open SIM Kit, open-source software that makes it possible to write information directly on a SIM card and make those files readable across various types of feature phones. If you can remember back to your old feature phone, Nieman Lab reader, its address book often had a field to enter additional information. While you could use that to leave notes like “does not like asparagus” or “works early mornings,” you could also use that to share other information.

What the Open SIM Kit does is make it possible for any type of feature phone to write or read these files. Or, to put it another way: “Essentially the SIM becomes like sticking a thumb drive into your laptop,” Gosier said.

POSTED     Jan. 24, 2013, 1:51 p.m.
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