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The Beacon: Let Us Know You're Safe

The Beacon is an SMS based community alert and messaging system. Participants check in to The Beacon daily. If they fail to check in friends and family are alerted; if many people stop checking in suddenly, alerts are sent out to members nearby.

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Written by DeletedUser

The Beacon is a service that if adopted widely enough could ensure that populations could not simply disappear without anyone knowing about it.

The core concept behind this idea is that of a deadman's switch, which operates by sending a signal precisely when the operator is incapacitated (see also Mary-Lynn Bragg's inspiration "Watching for Missing Signs from Afar").

Participants check in daily to The Beacon by sending an SMS with their personal passcode.  To incentivize users to participate The Beacon will proactively send out daily messages as reminders.  During normal peace time, these messages would contain useful news, weather, health tips, or whatever other kind of information would be valuable to share ( inspired here by MOTECH).  In other words, there will be several different value propositions for users here.

If a user fails to check in  for three days  - and hasn't said they want to just stop using the service - then a notification will be sent to a designated list of contacts like friends and family.  These are designated during the sign-up process or subsequently thereafter.

If all of a sudden many users stop checking in one day, then The Beacon will automatically send out an alert to nearby Beacon users.  In addition, users can also report suspicious behavior or sightings of hostile forces back to The Beacon, which will then synthesize incoming information and send it back out to users.  Any such alerts would also be publicized online anonymously so that information isn't owned or restricted.

How does your idea gather AND verify information? How does your idea keep those who use it safe?

It gathers information in two ways - by users sending SMS messages to simply check in or to report alerts. Information is verified through enough adoption of the service - if many similar or identical signals are being received, the likelihood of their validity increases.

How might your idea be designed to scale and spread to help as many people as possible?

The simple mobile phone is a technology which has already scaled; SMS is near ubiquitous. The Beacon service would need to be properly engineered to handle thousands or millions of incoming signals as well as massive spikes of activity during hostilities.

How might your idea make use of exisiting technology? Has your idea been tried in a different or related context?

It uses SMS as the existing technology. Related technology could be Four Square in which you check in to locations. Other SMS services like MoTECH or FrontlineSMS use SMS for infomation exchange in remote locations.

How could you begin prototyping this idea in a simple way to begin testing and refining it? Who would use your idea and/or who is using it now? Is your idea technically easy medium or hard to implement?

This idea could easily - and cheaply! - be protoyped using Frontline SMS open source software. People who would want to use this are users who want to 1) get relevant information they may not otherwise have access to; 2) want to be notified if any violence breaks out nearby; and 3) who want a way of knowing whether friends and family are ok. On the other side, incoming information would be sought by journalists, reporters, academics, humanitarian organizations, governments, or the military.

How is your idea adapted for conditions in hard-to-access areas, such as lack of internet and mobile access? Can users adopt it without much behavior change?

The lack of mobile access would be a major weakness to this solution of course. To mitigate this weakness, I would suggest that The Beacon in addition to sending out SMS alerts also sends out alerts via radio broadcast. Users can easily adopt this service without much behavior change as they will be familiar with mobile device operation.

Evaluation results

9 evaluations so far

1. How scalable would this idea be across regions and cultures?

Looks like it’d be easy to spread across multiple regions and cultures - 77.8%

This idea could scale but it might need further iteration to make it widely relevant - 22.2%

Seems that this idea would best be suited for a single region/population - 0%

2. Would a lot of resources be required to create a pilot for this idea? (think time, capacity, money, etc)

This idea looks easy to pilot with minimal resources being invested - 44.4%

Feels like this idea could take a moderate amount of resources to pilot - 55.6%

Seems like piloting this idea would take a lot of resources - 0%

3. How suitable is this idea for various challenges on the ground such as lack of internet or mobile access?

Yep, it feels like it could work easily beyond internet or mobile access - 0%

Not so sure – it looks like it would require online or mobile connectivity - 11.1%

This idea definitely seems to rely on internet or mobile access - 88.9%

4. Could this idea put users or others at risk?

Nope, it looks like everyone would be safe - 22.2%

There are some potential concerns, but these could be addressed with further iteration - 66.7%

I can imagine some people being put at risk with this idea - 11.1%

5. Overall, how do you feel about this concept?

This idea rocked my world - 66.7%

I liked it but preferred others - 33.3%

It didn't get me overly excited - 0%

36 comments

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Photo of Claudia
Team

Hi Lee

The aspect that worries me a little on this idea is that if the information of the database falls into the wrong hands, it can put users at great risk. There should be a way to prevent this.

Cheers
Claudia

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Team

DeletedUser

Also, there are neighboring "tribes" and communities in Africa (for example) that are impartial to their neighbors' plights. This glorified neighborhood watch ( I don't mean that in a nasty way either) required cooperation and compassion...sometimes these people are too beaten down etc. to have that.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard
Team

Lee,

re-reading your idea (including the great video) and the comments below, I'm wondering if rather than checking in everyday, you could not think of a passive tracking and then the possibility to send an sms in case of "danger" or potential danger.

See for example this concept which is very close to your idea but with a focus on signaling only there are problems: http://www.openideo.com/open/usaid-humanity-united/ideas/two-level-notification-system/

I'm also wondering how you imagine prototyping a version of beacon.

cheers.

al

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard
Team

Hi again, I wanted to share with you a video that my students did for their concept (mentioned in my previous concept): http://vimeo.com/66041527
they have a 2 steps approach you might find interesting.

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DeletedUser

Hi Lee,

Nice idea. A few thoughts & comments.

1. I believe your friend with experience in Africa is correct. Mobile phone adoption is exceptionally high worldwide. One additional thought: many feature phones (non-smartphones) support a standard called USSD (unstructured supplementary service data). It's a very low bandwidth, low cost data service – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ussd.

2. I also agree that the deadman switch approach is the way to go. I'm sure there is a variety of useful data that could be sent e.g. a weather forecast. There may be some interesting ways to gamify the experience and incentivize subscribers to be responsive. All that being said, it should be possible with some simple data analysis to identify poor responders and eliminate them from the overall picture. Also, I think the risk of false positives could similarly be handled with careful data processing. Obviously it depends on the size of the group under threat, but assuming the group has at least a few hundred members, it starts to be pretty hard to fake trigger the alert. You could have various levels of alert from "no action" to "watch" to "actively monitor" to "alert". The daily message could be customized for each group to validate the level of alert e.g. "watch" groups get a message asking if they have any concerns, "actively monitor" get specific questions about whether friends are missing etc.

3. More homes have cellular coverage now than have access to electricity (trying to find the report I read that in), so the areas without coverage are relatively small. Furthermore, SMS requires very little signal to go through – you can often send SMS when you cannot make a call. However, for areas that are known or suspected trouble spots, you could address coverage using a temporary bridge, such as this open source mesh network http://www.servalproject.org/.

Good luck with the challenge!

-Nick

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DeletedUser

I have a question. This concept could have drawbacks if individuals got "out of the habit" of sending the messages. I think this could happen easily. This would set off a false alarm, granted it would probably just be on an individual basis. So only friends and family would be affected. If this happened repeatedly, and the individual had not opted out, how would this be handled? I would suggest that someone who did this three times would be dropped out of the service and notified of this with a friendly message. There might be a notification sent each time someone fails to send the messages three days in a row, informing them the first time that if this happens two more times, he/she will be dropped from the system in order to ensure its effectiveness. This would not be an unfriendly message, it would be informative. And a similar message would be sent for the second time.

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Team

DeletedUser

Great idea, Lee!

To overcome the issue of mobile access, check out:

Allison's Packet Radio Device Proposal

http://www.openideo.com/open/usaid-humanity-united/ideas/a-social-network-app-for-packet-radio-devices/

David's APRS ideation

http://www.openideo.com/open/usaid-humanity-united/inspiration/automatic-packet-reporting-system-aprs-to-real-time-infographic-maps/#c-153ea0245c7ae3afff504b79ad017dd5

and my sheepish plug for our COSPAS-SARSAT / APRS proposal:

http://www.openideo.com/open/usaid-humanity-united/ideas/re-purpose-the-cospas-sarsat-and-aprs-communications-networks/

These proposed communications networks could carry the type of data that The Beacon uses.

Wish you the best!

Chris

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DeletedUser

Thanks Chris! and thanks for the links, definitely gave me a lot to think about. More feedback there...

Photo of Thierry Dagaeff
Team

To overcome some issue see: http://www.openideo.com/open/usaid-humanity-united/ideas/happy-life-cartography/ (I entered this idea which is similar to The Beacon, i.e. signaling when people hare happy, and stopping when they are under attack).

In particular, about the implementation point of view, I suggested that different type of devices and communication systems are used. And 2 important points: some devices can be shared and represent a small group; and some shared devices are at palces of typical "normal", "happy" life, like market places or offices.

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Team

DeletedUser

Yes, Chris, yours is one of my favorite ideas, because it doesn't rely on mobile access and because it uses an existing technology. If both systems were used (yours and Lee's), they could both be linked to the same central network, which would be an organization that can respond - or more likely direct information out to the best organization to respond to the given issue (in terms of both the issue and the location).

Photo of Nathan Maton
Team

Hi Lee - great idea, a few of us interested in organizing local OI meetups met up and discussed your idea because we liked it. One comment that emerged is how could NGO employees or other already existing groups use this process instead of relying on individuals. These groups may have more access to tech, and more trust to share information internally with each other while still gleaning useful insights with it. Keep on crackin' on this fab idea.

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DeletedUser

I agree with Nathan's point that it is critical to connect this information with broader national early warning networks. During the recent elections in Kenya, there were multiple levels of SMS reporting locally and nationally. It was a challenge, though, to channel all of the data into a broader network with capabilities to synthesize the information and develop response strategies.

While generating information is a key part of developing strategies to prevent atrocities, it must be linked with a broader network that has response capabilities. That being said, I really like that this concept is focused on local communities. Listening to local knowledge and information is our best chance at identifying unstable areas and developing proactive strategies to prevent violence.

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DeletedUser

These are good points. I think it's ideal to have both individuals within the community *and* NGO employees using the service. I think it's important to empower individuals, and this just adds to the strength. And really good point about connecting this with a broader network. So it would be important to identify existing networks, and choose one or more to approach with this idea. Also,I've noticed that many of the concepts in the prototype phase use cell phones. I'm probably not saying anything that hasn't been thought of here, but it would be great to take all of those ideas and pull them into one very strong concept.

Photo of Robert Smith
Team

Interesting concept, Lee! Recipients may want to customize their daily message, tailoring it to their interests and concerns. Seems like the recipients can receive a a lot of benefit from this message, potentially moving the recognition of the absense of a reply to a secondary level, essentially a background activity that gets monitored and promoted in the presence of a threat. This will tend to give the communication link a high immediate value and therefore keep it active, even if (hopefully) there is no threat for an extended period of time.

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DeletedUser

A question about this is: can this be done at no cost to the users? I know that SMS is widely adopted in many places, but is there a cost associated with sending or receiving these messages? If so, I could see that being a barrier. Needing to check in daily, even if it's just at the cost of a few cents, would add up quickly. So I think the basic SMS back and forth infrastructure needs to be cost free to the user.

Another thought: when I was growing up a lot of people had summer cottages (we called them camps) out in the woods on various lakes and/or were avid trek-into-the-woods campers. They'd go out every weekend. But this was well before cell phones and many of these places didn't have phone service. So to get messages out to them, you'd use a local radio station which had a daily broadcast called "Camper's Calls". A person with a phone (usually in the city) would call into the station and leave a message. Then at the same time (10am?) every day, there'd be 10 minutes of these messages read out. The people at camp would listen, just to hear if there was a message for them. Messages would range from informative "Mike at Silver Lake, Jake and the boys are coming up this afternoon. They'll bring more beer, hope you caught some fish!" to emergency "Susan and Steve near Sibley, your mom's had an accident. Please come back immediately." to coded "Viv, Ted says the cat fixed the lamp."

So getting to my point here: what if the users could text in a message that would then be broadcast widely on a radio at a certain time? Is this already done somewhere? Could this be an extension of the Beacon service for peace time communications? And any SMS sent to the central Beacon call-in-line would be sent cost-free and broadcast freely.

Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Great to see Virtual Team members constructively adding to ideas to this level! Looking forward to seeing this idea evolve...

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Team

DeletedUser

Hi Mary-Lynn, I had been thinking about the issue of cost as well. In a separate discussion, I was talking to Richard who has some overseas (African) experience, and he said:
"Lastly, people would be surprised at how prevalent and inexpensive mobile handsets are in numerous countries throughout Africa. Nokia, specifically, has done a tremendous job creating handsets that have mobile internet and wifi capabilities at a cost of about $25. In addition, Kenya, for example, has developed the most sophisticated bank in the world using your mobile device system. People, even in the most rural of areas, are capable of paying vendors with a simple SMS message. Nonetheless, in many places throughout rural Africa, the phones may have intermittent coverage at times, but many people still own them."
http://www.openideo.com/open/usaid-humanity-united/ideas/people-s-radio/

In regards to your example and idea: love it. Viewed in the abstract, the camper example is an example where a signal is ported from one channel (landline phones) to another (radio). Viewed like this, I'm wondering if there is opportunity, like you said, for SMS-to-radio, internet-to-radio, internet-to-SMS, etc. Basically make use of existing infracture where it is, but provide a service to translate it to technology more suitable for remote locations...

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Team

DeletedUser

Hi Mary-Lynn, building on your question about cost, I'd like to add the question: might there be communities that would a) be willing to bear some of the cost (whether that be inconvenience or monetary) because they are particularly at risk of being targeted (e.g. albinos, homosexuals, women) and b) be able to serve as an early warning sign for more widespread violence? My thought is that if some individuals felt more secure by checking in and/or would be willing to work together to reduce violence, perhaps these would be the same people who are generally more sensitive to changes in the tone of the community. What do you think?

Photo of OpenIDEO
Team

Congrats on being shortlisted for our Atrocity Prevention Challenge, Lee!

Our challenge sponsors loved how this idea didn’t rely on individuals being proactive to warn in an emergency, but rather uses the absence of information to indicate a problem. As this idea goes forward, consider how one might send specific relevant information along about if they're doing ok. One other challenge to consider is how would this concept work in regions with political instability where the government may shut down the phone system?

Read more on how to get involved with prototyping and refinement: http://bit.ly/oi_refine And here's some tips on prototyping specifically for this challenge: http://bit.ly/endatrocity-proto Ready, steady, refine!

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Team

DeletedUser

I read about the Natalia Project (http://natalia.civilrightsdefenders.org/) this morning, which ... well, certainly seems to want to solve some elements of the same thing we're trying to do here with this challenge.

They've already built a bracelet alarm, though I think the costs would be prohibitive to distribute in any really large sense across the populations we seem to be working with here BUT what I noticed is that they use some of the same alarm-notification principles you've brought here Lee: notification across social networks AND to a central monitoring system. The difference is in the method of notification. I think with cell phones, you're working with a more common (and less expensive) method. And also, presumably, these are high-profile individuals so a "all safe" system might be less necessary?

This concept also works on the "wearable" idea:
http://www.openideo.com/open/usaid-humanity-united/ideas/wearable-operable-reporting-method-w.o.r.m/

Photo of David Bradley
Team

Check out my ping pole idea. I think there is correlation here that we could build on.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard
Team

Lee, despite the risk of repeating what others say: great video with a scenario that makes the concept really clear. Really great idea!
I like Chris' idea of thinking of redundancy in the absence of mobile access. Mary-Lynn's suggestion of using video is also interesting and might prevent to have people worried about someone missing, while this person is just not having access.

I think it is a great idea to develop a community where people get maybe more out of the service than just "checking in", which might become laborious. Yet, you need to think of the cost associated (per Mary-Lynn's comment) as indeed it might be a barrier to use in some communities.

I just wanted to clarify one point. The messages are shared among the community, which is not only the family and friends of Lee. You also mentioned journalists, NGOs, etc. How are you thinking of sharing the information with them?

Photo of DeletedUser
Team

DeletedUser

Hi Anne-Laure, good question in regards to the journalists, NGOs, etc. Clearly we would want to maintain the privacy of individual members and participants. So I would say that information would be shared publicly if a) it is intended as such (i.e. messages not to anyone specifically (similar to Twitter)) or b) aggregated, non-personally identifiable information, like "hey in this village everyone just stopped checking in."

Now in terms of how this info would get to the journalist, NGOs, etc technically, I've been giving this some thought, and will probably post a separate concept about this. A lot of ideas we find all involve a central clearinghouse of information, e.g. "device X will communicate with a central database". So this central database/repository/information clearhouse should have a particular shape and design; in a nutshell, it should be a content management system where content is divorced from presentation but accessible via API, and be extensible to receive signals from many different types of devices. I actually think such an infrastructure could be the basis for unleashing creative forces to deal with the posed challenge in nuanced and unique ways. Like I said, I'll be posting more on this.

Thanks! - Lee

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Congrats on this post being today's onsite Featured Idea!

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DeletedUser

Woohoo, thanks so much! :)

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DeletedUser

I like this idea a lot and the video helped me quickly pick it up. The two strongest parts of this that I want to make sure don't get lost in any further iterations or implementation are: 1) the idea of providing value under normal operating conditions to keep users engaged and 2) the way it builds local networks by having levels of alerts when someone fails to check in.

Photo of DeletedUser
Team

DeletedUser

Hi Mary-Lynn, thanks for this feedback! I absolutely agree that in order for this to work there needs to be normal value, or else it might be a bit morbid to just check in to say "I'm alive!" I also like your second point about building local networks, I'm wondering if there's something we can do beyond just sending notifications when someone hasn't checked in. Maybe send out SMS to your local network?

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DeletedUser

Well, what if there was a component that allowed users - under normal peaceful operations - to submit "tips" or "reports" about local activities that then went out in the next update, with their name attached? "Miguel in San Jose reports that the road is washed out between there and Rivera"? So that's not a crisis situation but it could be put in the update between those two communities but wider than Miguel's personal circle that gets notified "Miguel hasn't checked in 3 days. Is he okay?"

Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Rocking video and idea – and we're loving the collaborative conversations you've sparked here!

Photo of DeletedUser
Team

DeletedUser

Thanks Meena! Digging Open IDEO a lot since I've discovered it 2 days ago :)

Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

And how brilliant that you're diving right in with this level of awesomeness!

Photo of Louise Wilson
Team

Hi Chris, love the video too! It's such a valuable way to bring the concept to life - thanks.

Your concept reminded me of a start-up in London called Supa Local. They use text messaging to reduce the time spent waiting in line. Very different to your concept but similar technology that could be helpful: http://www.supalocal.com/how-it-works.html

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Team

DeletedUser

Thanks Louise! And thank you for that link, very interesting to see what's being done with SMS - this is a great use case, waiting in lines.

Photo of Arjan Tupan
Team

First: awesome video. Having a scenario like this makes it really clear what you intend. Plus: I like the graphics in it.

The idea in itself is also a good one. I like how you built on the missing signs inspiration. And the build from Chris S could be an interesting one to create a system with redundancy in the communication channels.

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Team

DeletedUser

Thanks Arjan! Just took a look at your Enabler Cards idea which I think is promising. I like the idea of community empowerment through information. I was thinking of something similar when I was talking about The Beacon sending out daily SMS with news, weather, health tips, whatever. For the enabler cards, why not also send them using SMS, in addition to paper or other materials?

Thanks again,
- Lee

Photo of Arjan Tupan
Team

Oh, that's a great idea. Some of the information on the cards can be obviously sent out via other channels. I'm going to add that to my concept.