Concept Overview

As a collaborative effort with a colleague, Katherine Keane, an SMS-based phonebook service was conceived and launched within the ITP community. The service works with Textmarks, a free SMS redirection service that can link text messages with a special keyword to PHP scripts and other web-based pages.

Part 1 – Concept

The challenge in thinking up ideas for SMS based applications is that many applications would simply work better via the web or a mobile device. Why use text? Are there any ideas where being SMS based is a necessity or a strength, versus an inconvenience? Most of the SMS based apps out there that seem to work fall into one of two categories:

1. They app is intended to collect money, via your phone bill (like donating to the victims of the Haiti earthquake)

2. The app is intended for fledgling nations that use SMS rather than web-browsing

Kat and I sought out to create an app for the ITP community, and we didn’t want to take anyone’s money, nor did we want people to stop using web browsers when appropriate.

There has been a need in the ITP community for a centralized phonebook which lists students’ phone numbers. Recently a post to the email list invited people to add their name to a public google spreadsheet with this same intent. However, very few people elected to participate. One reason why is that the information on a spreadsheet is extremely accessible. Its just as easy to look up one number as it would be copy all the numbers. So some people are apprehensive about putting their name into such an open-book format.

Kat and I devised a plan to put this same info into an app that you can text to search for names. Because of the cost and time that it takes to lookup a single number, it is very unlikely that someone would take the time to extract all the numbers. Also, because the data is searched based, it would more difficult to find the names of people you don’t know and aren’t specifically looking for.

Part 2 – Technical Details

The basic technology behind our concept is that when you text a particular keyword (ITP411) to a particular phone number (41411), the message gets forwarded to a php script. This script processes your text and performs a small set of functions like looking up a name, adding a name, or editing a name. Special characters like @ and ! are used to activate these various modes.

We have prototyped this concept and it has been released into the ITP community. Currently there is a 35% adoption rate among students.

Link to the live PHP script. Link to the source code as text.