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November 21 2011

VoIP Drupal reaches out to the developing world

I don't know why so few of us turned up on Saturday for the VoIP Drupal hackathon. As a way to integrate voice and SMS into a Drupal site, the VoIP modules form a door throught which Drupal can move into a vast world of touch tone telephones, smart telephones, and text messaging, and therefore toward integrating a huge range of users in developing regions who use those technologies instead of desktop or laptop computers. Perhaps Boston isn't the right place or November the right month for a workshop (although the weather was quite nice), but just four of us gathered to get the low-down on VoIP Drupal from Leo Burd, a research scientist at MIT's Media Lab and Center for Civic Media.

Together with just a couple other developers, he is putting together modules that support Twilio and Tropo, two cloud platforms that are highly scalable and provide telephone and SMS capabilities accessible from different countries. For cases where those services are not available or desirable, VoIP Drupal provides support for Free/SWITCH, an open source telephony platform, via the Plivo communication framework/API.

Most of the time we played with the scripting language using the VoIP Drupal sandbox. The scripting language is a domain-specific language for VoIP built on top of Drupal's module language, PHP. It has about 15 commands to create interactive calls doing such things as recording and playing back audio, handling input from the telephone keypad, managing conference calls, and sending and receiving SMS messages. A trivial script I created went like this:


$script->addSetVoice('woman'); $script->addSetLanguage('fr');

$script->addSay('Voiçi un message. Ne répondez pas.');

$script->addHangup();

(The scripting language requires you to create the $script object first, but the sandbox does that for you silently.) When I played this back, I got a pretty authentic sounding Parisian voice, having even the suitably cavalier tone when she told me not to talk in return (although she was tolerant of my spelling mistakes).

Of course, much richer applications are available through the scripting language. It is mostly linear, although you can define and call subroutines, you can set and retrieve variables, and there is a primitive assembly-language-like statement that lets you branch to a label based on a condition. Furthermore, the modules' full power is available through a PHP API. The Drupal administration menu allows you to specify a script to play when the site makes an outgoing call, a script to play when someone calls the site's phone number, and a script to play when someone sends a text message to the site's phone number.

Burd showed off a site put together by a non-profit in Dorchester (a low-income area of Boston, Mass.) together with the MIT Center for Civic Media. A group of young students recorded some descriptions of nearby locations of interest. These locations display plaques with a phone number for the web site and an extension unique for their location. Someone dialing in hears the message and is invited to record his or her own opinions or stories about that part of the city. Attendees today were so impressed that they said, if this application could be released as a drop-in module, it would boost the use of the VoIP modules immediately.

Just a few of the many uses for VoIP in Drupal include:

  • The equivalent of mass mailings via voice calls and SMS, so you can send messages, for instance, to people who sign up for political campaigns

  • Letting visitors leave voice mail or add verbal comments to the site

  • Embedding a phone interface on the web page so people can make VoIP calls directly from your site, with no extra stand-alone software such as Skype

  • Providing a conference call service through your site

  • Letting people sign up for groups to receive SMS messages on chosen topics of interest

More modules are under construction; an overview is available on the Drupal web site. A messaging module lets you send a voice message that is delivered in by phone, email, or SMS, as preferred by the site's visitor. The modules are developed for Drupal version 6, but Burd plans to create Drupal 7 modules as soon as the version 6 ones reach their 1.0 release, depending on interest from the community.

Of the underlying services supported, Twilio offers voice generation for four languages. Tropo supports voice generation for 24 languages, and can also do speech-to-text. Both of those companies have been very friendly to the VoIP Drupal project and promote it at Drupal conferences. Free/SWITCH and Plivo require you to do a lot of the work that Twilio and Tropo will do for you. But Free/SWITCH is useful for areas without Twilio or Tropo support, and for high volume use because it tends to cost less under those circumstances. Free/SWITCH also give the programmer more control over the server and allows you to run everything from the same box. Overall, VoIP Drupal represents another step toward an Internet where communicating by voice is taken for granted.

October 18 2011

May 16 2011

Four short links: 16 May 2011

  1. Entering the Minority Report Era -- a survey of technology inspired by or reminiscent of Minority Report, which came out ten years ago. (via Hacker News)
  2. Sally -- a tool for embedding strings in matrices, as used in machine learning. (via Matt Biddulph)
  3. GNU SIP Witch Released -- can be used to deploy private secure calling networks, whether stand-alone or in conjunction with existing VoIP infrastructure, for private institutions and national governments. (via Hacker News)
  4. Chilling Story of Genius in a Land of Chronic Unemployment (TechCrunch) -- fascinating story of Nigerian criminal tech entrepreneurs. He helps build them up; he listens to their problems. He makes them feel loved. He calls each an innocuous pet name, lest he accidentally type the wrong message into the wrong chat window. He asks for a little bit of money here and there, until men are sending him steady amounts from each paycheck. He says it takes exactly one month for a man to fall in love with him, and once he has a man’s heart, no woman can take it. I wonder what designers of social software can learn from these master emotional manipulators?

March 28 2011

Four short links: 28 March 2011

  1. Anatomy of a Y Combinator Demo Day Pitch (Bryce Roberts) -- lovely deconstruction of the basic six slide show, demonstrating exactly how to give a talk with your audience in mind.
  2. Who Says What to Whom on Twitter (Yahoo! Research) -- we find a striking concentration of attention on Twitter---roughly 50% of tweets consumed are generated by just 20K elite users---where the media produces the most information, but celebrities are the most followed. One of the researchers is Duncan Watts of Small Worlds fame.
  3. Saylor Foundation Free Education Initiative -- notes, readings, tests, that take you through the curriculum for real university courses. Important because most online education stuff is either lectures, or course notes, but never enough for you to autodidacticise. (via Regan Mian)
  4. Blink -- A state of the art, easy to use SIP client available for Mac, Windows and Linux. SIP = open standard for voice over IP. (via Simon Phipps)

February 05 2010

One hundred eighty degrees of freedom: signs of how open platforms are spreading

I was talking recently with Bob Frankston, who has a href="http://frankston.com/public/Bob_Frankston_Bio.asp">distinguished
history in computing that goes back to work on Multics, VisiCalc,
and Lotus Notes. We were discussing some of the dreams of the Internet
visionaries, such as total decentralization (no mobile-system walls,
no DNS) and bandwidth too cheap to meter. While these seem impossibly
far off, I realized that computing and networking have come a long way
already, making things normal that not too far in the past would have
seemed utopian.



Flat-rate long distance calls

I remember waiting past my bedtime to make long-distance calls, and
getting down to business real quick to avoid high charges.
Conventional carriers were forced to flat-rate pricing by competition
from VoIP (which I'll return to later in the blog). International
calls are still overpriced, but with penny-per-minute cards available
in any convenience store, I don't imagine any consumers are paying
those high prices.



Mobile phone app stores

Not that long ago, the few phones that offered Internet access did so
as a novelty. Hardly anybody seriously considered downloading an
application to their phones--what are you asking for, spam and
fraudulent charges? So the iPhone and Android stores teaming with
third-party apps are a 180-degree turn for the mobile field. I
attribute the iPhone app store once again to competition: the href="http://www.oreillynet.com/onlamp/blog/2008/01/the_unflappable_free_software.html">uncovering
of the iPhone SDK by a free software community.



Downloadable TV segments

While the studios strike deals with Internet providers, send out
take-down notices by the ream, and calculate how to derive revenue
from television-on-demand, people are already getting the most popular
segments from Oprah Winfrey or Saturday Night Live whenever they want,
wherever they want.



Good-enough generic devices

People no longer look down on cheap, generic tools and devices. Both
in software and in hardware, people are realizing that in the long run
they can do more with simple, flexible, interchangeable parts than
with complex and closed offerings. There will probably always be a
market for exquisitely designed premium products--the success of Apple
proves that--but the leading edge goes to products that are just "good
enough," and the DIY movement especially ensures a growing market for
building blocks of that quality.


I won't even start to summarize Frankston's own href="http://frankston.com/public/">writings, which start with
premises so far from what the Internet is like today that you won't be
able to make complete sense of any one article on its own. I'd
recommend the mind-blowing href="http://frankston.com/public/?n=Sidewalks">Sidewalks: Paying by
the Stroll if you want to venture into his world.

But I'll mention one sign of Frankston's optimism: he reminded me that
in the early 1990s, technologists were agonizing over arcane
quality-of-service systems in the hope of permitting VoIP over
ordinary phone connections. Now we take VoIP for granted and are
heading toward ubiquitous video. Why? Two things happened in parallel:
the technologists figured out much more efficient encodings, and
normal demand led to faster transmission technologies even over
copper. We didn't need QoS and all the noxious control and overhead it
entails. More generally, it's impossible to determine where progress
will come from or how fast it can happen.

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