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As mobile phone use soars in Africa, even Kenyan lions are sending SMS messages.

Bush telegraph: This lion’s collar reports the animal’s position by sending SMS messages to a computer system that maps its location.

Collars worn by the lions send out messages to a computer system that maps their location. The project is aimed at cutting conflict with local Maasai herders to keep locals, lions, and livestock safe. But it also demonstrates a novel approach to getting the benefits of wireless data in areas that lack data services, and where even phone calls are still relatively expensive. Research company Ground Lab, based in New York City, made the collars and worked with nonprofits Living with Lions and Lion Guardians to fit them to lions and cattle in southern Kenya.

Built around the open-source Arduino control board, the collars include a GPS unit and an off-the-shelf cellular modem that can make calls, send SMS, or use a mobile-data network. That cellular module provides a low-cost way to link even cheap devices to the Internet over a cell network. Allowing devices to talk via the Internet is known as machine-to-machine communications, and is sometimes dubbed “the Internet of things.” In the developed world, that approach typically relies on the 3G wireless networks that serve smart phones.

“A lot of problems in Africa—including health and conservation challenges—come down to large sets of data that can’t be collected efficiently,” says Benedetta Piantella, a cofounder of Ground Lab. “Using SMS messages, and the system set up around it, provides a practical way to do that today in places where Internet infrastructure is still developing.”

Tracking animals would typically require a satellite link for data logging. “The cell-phone route is cheaper,” says Piantella. “In situations where they don’t have a good cell-phone infrastructure, we’re looking at deploying our own off-the-grid cell towers, which is still lower-cost than satellite.”

Africa has more than 650 million mobile-phone users, according to the GSMA, a global association of mobile operators. That figure is growing at more than 20 percent per year. Kenya’s government estimates that more than 63 percent of the country’s population uses a mobile phone.

Cheap smart phones are becoming established in some parts of Africa, but wireless data infrastructure is still limited, and using it is relatively expensive. However, Piantella says, even relatively remote areas of Kenya have cell-phone reception that is good enough for SMS messages, which can be sent over a connection that is too unreliable for voice calls or data access.

Ground Lab is working on other projects that use SMS as a channel for data—for example, a device that reports when a fridge used to store vaccines overheats. It could enable a central health authority to keep tabs on remote health programs.

A peek inside: The collar’s open-source design, based on the Arduino control board popular with hackers, is intended to make it possible for communities anywhere to build their own animal-tracking devices.

Justin Downs, Ground Lab’s other cofounder, says that using SMS as a data link can allow regions like Africa to start developing smart infrastructure not even established in richer places. “Because these countries skipped the wired infrastructure, they are set to develop solutions to problems—ones that developed society solved in the 1900s with large institutions and thousands of miles of copper—in much more efficient, inclusive ways,” he says. Finding ways to use SMS for smart infrastructure is a useful stopgap until wireless data access does become more practical, says Downs.

Michael Ueland, general manager for North America at Telit, which manufactures the cellular modules used by Ground Lab in its designs, says the project is an example of the value of machine-to-machine communications. “We’re making the components for cellular access cheap enough to allow any device to provide real-time information to the world,” says Ueland. “Ground Lab’s project shows the power of being able to do that, and that it can work anywhere in the world.”

Earl Oliver, a researcher at the University of Waterloo, previously worked on a system that can send data wirelessly by splitting it into chunks that are transmitted in several SMS messages, and then reconstructed later. He says that text messages can be relied upon to work pretty much anywhere, making them a good fit for areas that have limited infrastructure. Oliver is currently exploring how data sent by SMS could provide a route around Internet censorship or filtering.

“Mobile wireless networks essentially put your device behind a firewall,” he says, “so you can never directly connect to someone’s BlackBerry.” Oliver thinks that apps that usually rely on a data service might be able to sidestep filters by sending out data coded into a stream of SMS messages instead.

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