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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.


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Photo of Claudia

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.


Photo of 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.

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