Education

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March 10, 2015

SMS Helping Sierra Leonean Become 'Citizen Reporters'

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Advances in text messaging have extended to social causes, including those fighting disease and providing assistance to third-world communities. 

International development charity Christian Aid launched “SMS Voices” in January of last year, working in partnership with ENCISS, a Sierra Leone-based governance program funded by U.K. Aid and the European Union. The program is designed to help elected officials and citizens maintain an open dialogue, and was created by Radar, a U.K. communications nongovernmental organization.

SMS Voices trained 45 volunteers from Sierra Leone’s Bo and Koinadugu districts, including farmers, traders, students, and teachers, to become “citizen reporters.” Throughout 2014 they used text messaging to report issues of concern to their local councilors via anonymous micro-reports. Issues raised included the lack of teaching materials in schools, conflict among local groups, unsafe roads and bridges, clean water access, female genital mutilation, teen pregnancy, inefficient waste management, and violence against women and children.

Messages were received by nine participating elected officials, who were instructed to respond to micro-reports through text messaging and explain to reporters their plans to rectify these issues in their respective communities. Some said they would investigate, while others claimed they would bring the issues up at council meetings or alert the relevant police officer or mayor. Whatever the decision and outcome of the reports, an effective dialogue was indeed created between officials and citizens. 

Over 300 reports were sent during the 12-month period, and towards the end of the year some two-thirds concerned the Ebola crisis. Volunteers discussed how households were affected by quarantine regulations, reported regulation breaches, and shared concerns about infection.

“During the rebel war there were no mobile phones; now with Ebola, communication is possible,” remarked Martin M B Goba, deputy chairman of the Bo District Council. “During my time in quarantine, I was able to communicate with my ward development committee with an immediate response.” Goba lost several family members to the disease.

“It’s been challenging, but it’s helping me to improve on my job and to know the problems in my community, so that I can find solutions to them,” he added. “It has improved my interaction with civil society and shown me how to act immediately and promptly to community concerns.” 

The project has demonstrated the possibility of running low-cost, innovative programs in low-resource environments, such as within Sierra Leone, where less than 10 percent of the population have access to electricity, and a mere 2 percent use the Internet. 

“I have seen change,” remarks volunteer Evelyn Turay. “I have now seen council officials in the community raising awareness on issues around teenage pregnancy and early sexual activities [of young people] which I have been reporting on.” 

As the program progresses, it’s increasingly obvious that text messaging provides a powerful tool for helping third-world communities stay engaged and empowered.

 

February 05, 2015

Twitter Buys Indian Mobile Marketing Startup

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If you’re a mobile marketer, your marketing message might just be the next big thing in India, all thanks to a microblogging site’s ambitious investment abroad. Last week, Twitter purchased a startup corporation in India, called Zipdial.  

Indicative of the current ubiquitous nature of mobile phones and the decrease in their manufacturing costs, India has grown to one of the largest users of mobile phones worldwide. But the country has yet to get fully connected to the internet via mobile technology. Many people still use the mobile internet on a pay-per-site basis, with fewer than 40% of the populace having any kind of mobile internet access.

Zipdial, however, has revolutionized advertising for the burgeoning economy of the developing country. The startup allows its users to call a business’ phone number, then simply hang up. The business then registers the incoming phone number and responds with free text messages, app notifications, and even voice calls with advertisements.

This method of advertising has been dubbed “missed call” marketing. It allows users of Zipdial to receive advertisements from businesses they are interested in without having an internet connection. And best of all, there is no mobile cost to the consumer for receiving these ads. It's an effective way in, providing solutions in places many mobile marketing campaigns cannot reach.

So why is Twitter so interested in India? Because it is now one of the most rapidly growing mobile markets in the world. As cited last week in a Mobile Marketing Watch article, the Internet & Mobile Association of India and IMRB International report that the mobile internet industry of India has had unprecedented growth in 2014 – and 2015 is on par to surpass even that. Mobile internet growth increased over 25% in all of 2014, and is forecasted to grow another 23% in just the first half of 2015. Also reported in the article, rural use of mobile phones in India is expected to grow another 18%.

Zipdial boasts that its campaigns have reached nearly 60 million users, and the company is run by just over 50 employees. Mobile journalists have predicted that this technology will be effective in other countries as well, like Brazil and Indonesia. And according to reporters, these markets are key for Twitter, as 77% of Twitter’s monthly active users hail from outside the United States.

Twitter did not disclose how much they paid for the firm. But this purchase certainly exemplifies the notion that mobile technology and text marketing are proliferating immensely throughout the developing world. 

 

January 29, 2015

Behavioral Change Techniques Sorely Lacking in Most Fitness Apps

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Earlier this year, the American Journal of Preventative Medicine issued a report regarding the effectiveness of fitness applications. While their studies showed that apps provide much opportunity for social networking and feedback, most apps were seriously lacking in behavioral change techniques.

Behavioral change techniques, also known as BCTs, are techniques that directly help app users to modify their physical activity in significant ways. 

The study reviewed the 100 top-ranked physical activity apps and analyzed them for the existence of BCTs. Using a classification process according to 93 specific kinds of BCTs, the Journal reported that only 39 types of BCTs were present. On average, only six BCTs were present in any given app.

Now just about half of all American adults own a smartphone, and roughly half of those users access health information through their mobile phones. Also, about 50 percent of mobile users have at least one fitness app. These apps regularly provide certain types of BCTs: social support through online communities like Facebook, how to perform an exercise, exercise demonstrations and feedback, as well as information about others’ approval of a technique. While these are critical BCTs for self-improvement, the study found that most apps were lacking in the breadth of their BCTs.

Furthermore, the study found that app developers favored BCTs with a modest evidence base over others that had a more established effectiveness rate. David E. Conroy, PhD, the lead investigator, stated that “not all apps are created equal, and prospective users should consider their individual needs when selecting an app to increase physical activity.” In one example, he mentions that social media integration for providing social support is a very common BCT in apps, but he goes on to say that the BCT of active self-monitoring by users is much more effective in increasing activity.Perhaps the cause of the lack of self-monitoring BCTs is a result of development around mobile device capabilities. For example, accelerometers serve to passively monitor the movements of the mobile user, but they do not incite the user to participate in some form of exercise. Moreover, there is little evidence of retrospection or active self-reporting with these apps – BCTs that experts agree are most effective for changing behavioral activity.

The American Journal of Preventative Medicine didn’t suggest that Americans eschew fitness apps; the study simply showed where these apps are lacking. The potential of fitness apps in our society should, in fact, be lauded. Most apps do have many benefits, and exercise BCTs will most likely help a sedentary person to get moving. Since insufficient physical activity is the second-leading preventable cause of death in the United States, Americans should take advantage of fitness apps that can help them to increase their daily activity.

January 16, 2015

The App that Stops You From Using Apps

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Is one of your new year’s resolutions to spend more time with friends and family and less time absorbed in your mobile device? Perhaps you’re looking to limit screen time while at the family dinner table? Believe it or not, there’s actually an app for that.

Entitled Moment was originally launched as a “well-designed and practical tool” for anyone wanting to shorten time spent staring at their mobile device screen. Designed by developer Kevin Holesh, Entitled Moment makes it easy to set daily smartphone use limits, and runs in the background of your phone. It makes a noise and sends a notification when you exceed your limit for the day. 

Currently being promoted as a “family application,” Moment now allows family members to track each others’ daily phone use from their devices and create “screen-free” timed sessions that includes loud alerts should someone pick up their phone.

Holesh notes that most people underestimate how much time they spend on their smartphones by some 50%. The developer’s own mobile device “addictions” helped inspire the app, as he found time spent in the digital world was interfering with his real-world relationships.

Similar apps were released following the launch of Moment, including Checky, which tracks how often users check their phones each day. 

The app’s creator also remarked that parents wrote to him thanking him, as Entitled Moment significantly helped manage kiddie screen time. This prompted Holesh to create Moment 2.0 and make limiting screen time a family activity.

Subsequently, consumers can now view daily family member phone use patterns, and configure “family dinner time” mode—an hour-long block that encourages users to put their phones down while at the table. Should a family member break the “phone down” rule, the person will hear a loud alert until they stop using their device.

Downloaded over one million times thus far, the app’s alerts are quite humorous, and include sirens, thunder, buzzer/alarm clock, and “the most annoying sound in the world” from the comedy classic Dumb and Dumber. A free app, it currently has about 200,000 active monthly users. Moment is available on iTunes, and includes the option of paying $3.99 for three months, or $19.99 for the whole year.

Rather than punishing children with a “no phone” rule, this app makes family dinner time something any member can implement at any time. Moment serves as a highly useful tool in decreasing kids’ screen time at home, and may be used in conjunction with other parental controls for mobile devices. 

January 12, 2015

6 Common Mobile Security Issues

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How secure is your mobile? It’s one of those boring questions that few people want to ask themselves when acquiring a new phone. Security? Pah! Just let me hit the App Store and I’ll sort all that out later.

Of course, later never comes, a fact that cyber criminals rely on to do their ‘work’. A 2012 Congress report found a 185% increase in the number of mobile-targeted malware variants between 2011 and 2012. ABI research from the same year went further, suggesting a 2180% rise in malware variants.  

The disparity between the government’s and the private research company’s estimates is in itself disturbing. That two different studies throw up such wildly different results is indicative of just how little we know about the mobile threat. And these reports (which represent the most recent figures) are now three years out of date. It’s anyone’s guess how many malware variants are out there now.   

It’s true that some vulnerabilities faced by mobile devices are the result of inadequate technology, but bad consumer practices are by far the commonest causes of security breaches. Protecting your mobile device means acquainting yourself with these causes and taking steps to avoid them.

 

1) Poor Password Protection

Despite the wide availability of password controls, many consumers do not enable password protection. Those that do often use easily-cracked passwords like sequential numbers, or a row of zeros. Always use two-factor authentication when conducting sensitive transactions like payments and accessing bank details. Remember, if your passwords are too easy to remember, they’re too easy to guess.

 

2) Insufficient Security Software

Many mobile devices do not come preinstalled with security software, leaving them open to malware and spyware. Too often, users fail to install software, either because they don’t want to affect their battery life or because they don’t want to slow operations down. The price paid is too high, so make sure your device is adequately protected against Trojans, viruses and scam bait from spammers. 

 

3) Out-of-Date Operating Systems

Security patches and updates are not always installed as soon as they become available. This is partly down to carriers taking their time over testing, and partly down to the proliferation of archaic systems which are no longer supported by the manufacturer. If you want to maximize security, it’s a good idea to update your mobile device at least every couple of years.

 

4) Out-of-Date Software

Similarly, old software may not have security patches readily available, and third party applications like web browsers do not always notify customers about updates. Be aware that using outdated software increases the risk of cyber attacks.

 

5) Using Unsecured WiFi Networks

Connecting to an unsecured WiFi network is like an open invitation to hackers. They insert their device into the middle of the communication stream and steal information. Be vigilant when using public networks and, if possible, avoid them altogether.

 

6) Bluetooth

The schoolboy error of schoolboy errors, it’s startling how many people use Bluetooth without being aware of what it is. Remember, if your device is in ‘discovery’ mode it can be seen by other Bluetooth-enabled devices. Easy pickings for a cyber attacker, who can install malware or even activate your camera and microphone in order to eavesdrop. As with public WiFi, the best protection against Bluetooth scams is to simply avoid using it altogether. Failing that, keep it turned off whenever you’re not using it.

December 17, 2014

How SMS is Helping Small Businesses in Latin America

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The second annual Latin American Bitcoin Conference took place in Rio earlier this month. More than 200 attendees saw seminars and panels featuring 37 guest speakers from around the world. 

Among the keynote speakers were a number of bitcoin representatives. The crypto currency is making a big impact across the region. A new partnership between Coinapult and 37 Coins seeks to expand bitcoin access to segments of the population without smartphones or traditional banking methods at their disposal. Their weapon? SMS messaging.

The service allows bitcoin users the world over to send and receive payments using only a feature phone with SMS capability. For entrepreneurs in South America, it holds the promise of allowing them to operate from remote areas, lessening the burden on over-populated urban centers.

This is a crucial development, not just for SMB owners, but for the public purse as well. Millions of small businesses across Latin America are currently restricted to cash-only transactions. This raises the question: how sure can local governments be that rural entrepreneurs are doing due diligence when it comes to paying taxes? It hardly takes a cynic to assume millions of pesos, bolivianos, reals and dollars are slipping through the net.

Of course, there will always be a black market. For some, operating outside the system is a point of principal. But for most small businesses, removing the temptation is all that’s needed to reduce corruption. Give them the tools to accept trackable, taxable payments and they’ll play ball, safe in the knowledge that the added security will help their business in the long run. Legitimacy is so much more attractive when it’s easily achieved.

A similar scheme – albeit with no SMS element – has been implemented in East African countries including Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. M-Pesain allows its 16 million users to send and receive money, pay bills and withdraw cash from local ATMs. 

SMS-based money transfer systems are providing the way forward in Latin America. Paraguay has Giros Tigo, which incurs a 5% commission fee. Brazil and Argentina have similar systems in place.

Bitcoin and text messaging seem to be a winning doubles team. The key beneficiaries are often people who face discrimination from financial institutions, which view them as risky prospect for credit. Entrepreneurs trying to make headway in these conditions find it difficult to send money, pay with credit cards or open a bank account – no matter how promising their ideas are. Nothing can match text message in terms of potential: four billion people worldwide are living without smartphones (perish the thought!) and the remittances market has found it’s most promising tool yet in SMS-enabled bitcoin transfers.

December 04, 2014

How to Protect Yourself from Cyber Scammers

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A new scam operating out of Tallahassee has been asking Bank of America customers to divulge their account information. The text message asks Floridians to provide personal information – including debit card numbers – in response to ‘fraudulent activity’ being detected. In truth, the only fraud being perpetrated is by the authors of the SMS; no legitimate financial institution will ever ask for details via text message. One 21-year-old victim learned of the scam after being charged a few hundred dollars for a dress costing just $50.

She’s not alone. With the majority of the populace surfing the web for gifts every holiday season, it’s little wonder that so many are affected by scammers. Last year, a staggering number of Americans fell prey to a data breach at Target stores. It operated for less than three weeks, but managed to harvest bank details from more than 70 million citizens. 

This year won’t be any different – unless shoppers change their habits and become more alert to the warning signs of fraudsters. The rise of online scams correlates with the increase in web shopping. Bottom line is, more people shopping on the internet = more potential victims. So how can you protect yourself?

Cyber Scams and How to Spot Them

Annually, more than 16 million people report identity theft. During the holiday season, the number of victims increases. Cyber fraudsters view online shoppers as easy marks.

 

It’s not just the increase in the number of consumers that attracts criminals. From mid-November to mid-January, retailers start slashing prices, often with aggressive time-limitations. Shoppers act hastily in the face of perceived competition, with scant regard for the possibility that they’re being conned.

Protect yourself by learning the fraud indicators that should set alarm bells ringing:

 

  • No padlock icon. When visiting a site purporting to be a bank, check the far left side of your browser for the green padlock icon. As a security measure it’s far from failsafe – the padlock just means the site is encrypted – but clicking on it should bring up the true site address. If what you see doesn’t match the URL in the address bar, the site may well be a fake. Look for the lock. It’s something all legitimate websites will have.
  • Non-secure protocol. Never give your financial information to a non-secure website. Check the URL: if it begins with https it’s secure; http means it’s not. Again, neither protocol guarantees safety or scam, but no legitimate banking institution would use http, so its presence should put you on high alert for other fraud warning signs.
  • Being asked to pay by money transfer. Private sellers who ask you to pay using a prepaid card or via money transfer are highly suspicious and may be operating a scam. Always use a secure payment platform like PayPal.
  • Public wi-fi. Incredibly useful for using in-store apps or comparing deals on retail goods, access to free wi-fi is understandably tempting for shoppers - just don’t use it to input any personal data. That includes logging into your email account. Public networks are gifts for hackers, especially in busy malls where it would be extremely hard to identify who the perpetrator of a fraud is. Not that you would know you’d been hacked until much later.

 

As long as you remain vigilant to the possibility of being defrauded, and are aware of the methods they use, you stand a very good chance of surviving the holiday season without falling afoul of cyber criminals.

November 11, 2014

Shun the Bait: How to Spot a Smishing Scam

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According to a Pew report from 2011, mobile users aged 18-24 share an average of 109.5 SMS messages per day. With such high levels of activity, it’s hardly surprising that there is room for opportunistic scammers to slip through the net. With mobile phones generally carrying fewer security measures than desktop computers, the best protection against scammers is your own vigilance.

The most common SMS scams are variations on two themes: getting users to install malicious spyware with the aim of stealing their identity, or persuading them to use a premium-rate SMS app (usually concealed within legitimate – or legit-looking – apps). 

In the case of the latter scam, few users notice the premium charges applied to their account until they received a bill. It’s notoriously difficult to pursue refunds from network providers because opt-in laws surrounding SMS communications mean that victims have actively agreed to use the software at the premium rate. If ever there was an argument for reading those boring terms and conditions…

Collectively, these practices are known as ‘smishing’ – or ‘SMS fishing.’ The good news is, there are lots of tell-tale signs to help you spot smishing scams, and a few other measures you can take to protect yourself. Cast your eye over our tips for avoiding getting scammed by smishermen:

If it looks too good to be true it probably is

If free food looks too delicious to be free, it’s most likely bait. Even major brands tend to offer relatively small incentives for engaging with them, so if you’re getting text messages purporting to be from Starbucks and offering you thousands of dollars for texting a number, it’s well worth checking their website before doing anything. Maybe it’s legit, maybe it isn’t – just don’t rely on the information in the text message alone. If this unbelievably generous special offer is real, the marketing department will make sure it’s all over the internet.

If they’re in a hurry, you should worry

It’s true that time-sensitive offers are just part of the marketer’s arsenal, so not all text messages that generate a sense of urgency are suspicious. But if they’re trying to get you to respond within a couple of minutes rather than a few hours, it’s because they don’t want you to root around for corroboration. Of course, that’s precisely what you should do. Just as overly-generous promotions require some further research, so do overly-urgent ones.

Treat mobile security as seriously as desktop security

For some reason, cellphone users lower their guard when it comes to protecting their device. There are a number of steps you can take to minimize risk. Don’t use third party websites to download apps – stick with the official marketplace for your device. Carefully examine any links you receive – whether via email or SMS – and if you have any doubts, research the url in Google before clicking the link. Also, you might want to lock your device down by tightening the security settings or installing security software.

 

 

November 04, 2014

How Spamming is Helping Fight Ebola

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Spamming is aiding the fight against Ebola.

Operators of text messaging system Tera, which provides advice and help to people fighting Ebola in the Sierra Leone region, are looking to extend the service to seven other African nations—Mali, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia and Burkina Faso. Ebola kills victims via dehydration and multiple organ failure, and more than 4,000 West Africans have perished from the disease.

The network allows Red Cross and Red Crescent charities to “send SMS messages to every switched-on handset in a specific area by drawing its shape on a computer-generated map.” Automatic, appropriate replies to incoming texts are also featured. Both charities aim for expansion completion over the next nine months, but cooperation of local mobile authorities and networks is needed.

"It's been doing an excellent job in Sierra Leone, sending out in the region of 2 million messages per month, helping the communities there to prepare themselves, try to avoid getting infected, and then if they do, to know what to do about it," notes Robin Burton from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). “Unlike TV and radio, if we send them a text message it's retained on the phone."

The trick is quelling each nation’s concerns or fears about joining the network.

"The thing operators might have a problem with is that they are basically being asked to spam millions of their customers, and people often object to that," says Ken Banks, an SMS expert who advises the UK's Department for International Development. "When people in Haiti received messages asking them to donate blood [after the 2010 earthquake] that were blasted out willy-nilly some were not in a position to do so, and they found it annoying.”

However, Banks notes operators can’t really argue this one, as no one wants to be accused of blocking potentially life-saving messages during an epidemic. He adds that the significance of the Red Cross as an organization will also fuel the proverbial fire. The IFRC also wants Tera to appear as "network friendly" as possible, and allow individual subscribers to opt out and operators to apply exclusion lists.

The network is specifically designed to send texts to powered-up handsets. This avoids build-up of millions of undelivered messages, and therefore potential network strain. Staggered texts are yet another way the network is preventing overload, and the system is location-sensitive, so messages are sent to affected areas only.

An inexpensive system to operate, Tera may be utilized during natural disasters and for relief effort feedback, potentially emerging as one of the key factors in helping to limit the damage from both natural and human-spread calamities.

October 20, 2014

Baltimore Maps Addiction with Text Messaging

SMS Messaging has had a major impact on healthcare processes. Everything from appointment reminders to internal communications in hospitals are being achieved more effectively than ever, and it’s all down to the humble text message.

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In recent years, one of the most powerful applications of this technology has taken place in Baltimore, where it’s being used to help addicts in recovery. A National Institutes of Health lab located in East Baltimore provides methadone and testing to the addicts who attend. Unlike many other rehab programs, addicts don’t get thrown out if they relapse. Why? Because the data they can provide is far too valuable to researchers investigating the causes of relapses.

This data is being gathered via smartphones specifically programmed to help struggling drug users track their cravings and relapse episodes. The phones beep randomly throughout the course of the day with a text message asking questions like: Where are you? How are you feeling? What are you doing? Who are you with?

The scheme aims to identify the events and situations surrounding relapses. What are the events, places and people that trigger drug use? What happens in the precise moment an addict decides to use? 

In addition to cell phones, addicts carry GPS loggers to track their movements. Researchers can see the whereabouts of participants, identifying particular blocks or parts of town that precipitate a relapse. Knowing the location of an addict when they use – or think about reusing – is helping the team better understand the patterns of behavior that lead to a relapse.

The scheme is not the first SMS-based solution to treating addiction. Problem drinkers have been helped by a text message program that monitors their alcohol intake. Participants took weekly surveys and, depending on their responses, received automated text messages containing words of encouragement or recommendations for limiting alcohol consumption. The results showed that, on average, heavy drinkers can cut their intake by up to half by using such a scheme.

The nature of the platform is well-suited to self-monitoring and the setting of short term goals. People generally carry their phones everywhere, making them the perfect tool for reminding people to stay aware of unhealthy behaviors. Even just being told to ‘hang in there’ can work wonders for problem drinkers who are trying to keep on top of their alcohol intake. Mobile technology gives addicts a pocket clinician-cum-counselor that won’t let them down.