HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Newsonomics: BuzzFeed and The New York Times play Facebook’s ubiquity game
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
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.
SEE MORE ON Mobile & Apps
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2013
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Newsonomics: BuzzFeed and The New York Times play Facebook’s ubiquity game
The ubiquity game has different rules for digital startups than for legacy businesses. But for both, figuring out the right relationship with Facebook is key to their audience strategies.
Jeff Israely: Good content marketing benefits from a smart publisher’s touch
Our startup correspondent, building Worldcrunch in Paris, on the thinking behind its operation’s pivot: “The smart brands know they’ll lose your attention if they use this new publishing power simply to push their merchandise.”
How a hobby foreign affairs blog became a paywalled news destination — and a business
World Politics Review has grown from one man’s side project to a small news operation supported by a niche paywall.
What to read next
2481
tweets
Millennials say keeping up with the news is important to them — but good luck getting them to pay for it
The new report from the Media Insight Project looks at millennials’ habits and attitudes toward news consumption: “I really wouldn’t pay for any type of news because as a citizen it’s my right to know the news.”
926The next stage in the battle for our attention: Our wrists
News companies have moved from print dollars to digital dimes to mobile pennies. Now, with the highly anticipated launch of the Apple Watch, the screens are getting even smaller. How are smart publishers thinking about the right way to serve users and maintain their attention on smartwatches?
729A wave of distributed content is coming — will publishers sink or swim?
Instead of just publishing to their own websites, news organizations are being asked to publish directly to platforms they don’t control. Is the hunt for readers enough to justify losing some independence?
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
The Fiscal Times
The Wall Street Journal
Backfence
SF Appeal
Tucson Citizen
Placeblogger
Drudge Report
Bloomberg
Bloomberg Businessweek
Suck.com
The Seattle Times
Seattle Post-Intelligencer