When it comes to mobile communications, there’s still a lot of room for innovation at the bottom. In Bangalore, India, researchers from the University of Toronto and Microsoft are now imagining new business models for the world’s poorest phone owners by adapting a little-known protocol that can receive pictures as bitmapped text messages. The technology could readily be used in the roughly 1.5 billion low-end Nokia and Samsung phones in circulation.
The researchers have shown how to use the technology to crowdsource the task of digitizing handwritten documents word by word, a type of work that anyone with an inexpensive phone could do for extra money. A handwritten word is displayed as the image—resembling retro graphics from 1980s Atari games—and the phone owner types in the word, contributing piecemeal to a larger job.
“Crowdsourcing on phones really has potential to provide substantial income for people who are very poor and have a lot of time on their hands,” says Ed Cutrell, a computer scientist at Microsoft Research India in Bangalore. “That’s one of the main things we’re interested in here: are there means to provide supplemental income to people who don’t have computer and Internet access?”
Tools such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk already allow such applications and can be accessed using smart phones, but they generally require a full-fledged computer and Internet connection. In fact, though about one-third of Mechanical Turk workers are based in India, studies have found that these workers are generally college educated, make double the national average income, and are using computers, not mobile phones.
By contrast, the protocols involved in the new research, which are part of Nokia’s Smart Messaging Service, allow binary picture messages with a resolution of only 74 by 28 pixels. This would allow a rough image to be displayed on basic $20 phones with 1.3-inch black-and-white screens—and over SMS, which is a widely available protocol. “It’s an old technology that Nokia had implemented,” says Aakar Gupta, lead author of the paper, which is to be released at a conference today. “Most people had just forgotten about it.”
Indeed, Nathan Eagle, a Harvard professor and CEO of Jana (formerly known as Txteagle), which uses low-end phones as a platform for applications like marketing and surveys in poor regions of the world, says he’d never heard of the image protocol for SMS messages before the paper. “When people think about smart phones, they think about devices like the iPhone and applications in the App Store or Android marketplace,” he says. “But enabling low-end phones to display bitmap images, on a billion-plus devices—that’s exciting.”