Using Google Voice To Bring Text Messages Online

Guest blog by Zach Holden, Tulane University- Oil Spill Crisis Map Team Lead

There was alot more work that went into the Oil Spill Crisis Map than meets the eye. Utilizing a new open-source application like Ushahidi can be tricky and to get everything in working order we had to pull some rabbits out of our hat.

One of the most striking features of Ushahidi is the ability to receive reports via SMS text messages. From the outside it looks like you just send a text and it pops up on the map — however it’s not that simple.  You have to have a way to pull text messages from the closed cell-phone networks on to the web.  Ushahidi has two default ways of doing this:  1) Using the open-source application FrontlineSMS. A system created for receiving and sending bulk text messages. And 2) Setting up a short-code [four digit text-in number] web portal [magical portal that brings telephony data online] with a company called Clickatel.

The problem is that for FrontlineSMS you need a dedicated server with a cellphone modem plugged into it all the time. So not only do you have to babysit more software and hardware, but you have to shell out cash for the modem and a cellphone service plan. With Clickatel, you have to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to buy a short-code and it takes weeks, if not months, for it to become active [unless you are as lucky as the Haiti Ushahidi team, who had one donated to them].

In order to leap these hurdles we came up with a new solution: Google Voice. For those of you who don’t know, Google Voice is a web app for managing all of your telephone services from one convenient “inbox” on your Google account. You can create a number that rings all your different phone lines, make long distance telephone calls online and transcribe voice messages to text and have them forwarded to your inbox.

What we did for the Crisis Map was set up a number in Google Voice — (504) 27 27 OIL. We then made it so that all text messages sent to that number are forworded to our Oil Spill Gmail account []. From there the reports show up automatically in the Ushahidi back-end and our team members can approve them to appear on the map. This solution added only one step to our system — one small, free and automated step.

Using Google Voice in this way has saved us significant time and money and allowed us to start receiving SMS reports almost immediately. We hope that Google and the Ushahidi development team can take this simple solution and run with it, creating an even more simple and streamlined design so that future Ushahidi projects can be deployed with more freedom and less technological know-how.

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2 Responses to Using Google Voice To Bring Text Messages Online

  1. Lauren Craig says:

    Awesome! Gotta love google… so many cool, free, extremely useful tools. Thanks for the info!

  2. Adam S. says:

    Great innovation. We’ve been looking for a way around the Frontline SMS/Clickatell pipeline for a while and this just may do it.

    But how did you get a Google Voice number so quickly? I’ve heard that can take weeks if not months itself.

    Thanks, and good luck with the project.

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