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Interview :: DNC : Organizing : Technology
Interview with Tad Hirsch of MIT and TxtMob.com
24 Sep 2004
Long before the Republican National Committee convention descended upon New York City, plans were in place for massive protests, the largest culminating in a gathering of 500,000 protesters from around the nation on the Sunday prior. But with little major media coverage beyond analysis of traffic snarls, participants relied mostly on a network of web sites, e-mails, and a SMS service called TxtMob to get the information they needed to prepare.

Despite a long list of organized and permitted protests, and because of the major surveillance initiatives rolled out by the NYPD and Secret Service, protesters needed a more fluid, decentralized way to coordinate activities, particularly on Tuesday’s planned day of direct action and civil disobedience. By all accounts, TxtMob delivered.
In March of this year, several thousand protesters crowded the streets of Madrid, gathering suddenly in front of the offices of the Spanish ruling Popular Party (Partido Popular). These protests occurred one day prior to the Spanish general elections, and were organized to combat what participants argued was outgoing Prime Minister Jose Aznar’s intentional manipulation of information regarding the March 11th Madrid train bombings for political gain. Similar gatherings soon appeared in Barcelona, in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, and other locations throughout Spain. Despite PP leader Mariano Rajoy declaring the gatherings as illegal assemblies, they were unable to make any arrests – the protests were coordinated via Short Message Service (SMS) enabled cell phones, and thus there was no single party to hold accountable.

Two years earlier, Gloria Arroyo rode into office on a wave of SMS messages. Driven by voters disenfranchised by rampant corruption by government officials, text messages gathered crowds of approximately 700,000 people to Manila’s People Power shrine to demand that then president Joseph Estrada step down amid suspicion that he had made millions in gambling bribes and shady bank deals. The Philippines, now known as the “texting” capital of the world, sent 70 million messages a day at the height of the protests. This prompted one local telecommunication carrier to install mobile cell transmitters at the site of the gatherings.

Over the past few years, SMS has become a visible and viable force in politics and major elections throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa organizing protesters in Spain and the Philippines, getting voters to the polls in South Korea, coordinating election monitors in Kenya and Ghana, delivering missives from politicians in India, and as part of the official voter registration process in South Africa. But the one place it had yet to truly make a strong showing in electoral politics was the United States.

Until the Republicans came to town.

Long before the Republican National Committee convention descended upon New York City, plans were in place for massive protests, the largest culminating in a gathering of 500,000 protesters from around the nation on the Sunday prior. But with little major media coverage beyond analysis of traffic snarls, participants relied mostly on a network of web sites, e-mails, and a SMS service called TxtMob to get the information they needed to prepare.

Despite a long list of organized and permitted protests, and because of the major surveillance initiatives rolled out by the NYPD and Secret Service, protesters needed a more fluid, decentralized way to coordinate activities, particularly on Tuesday’s planned day of direct action and civil disobedience. By all accounts, TxtMob delivered.

First used at the DNC protests in Boston in July, the project was conceived and developed by the Institute of Applied Autonomy, whose previous works include Little Brother, a self-styled “cute” robot designed to distribute propaganda and iSee, an inverse surveillance application mapping the locations of city-based closed circuit television cameras. Turning Howard Rheingold’s concept of Smart Mobs on its head, TxtMob instead provides a way for people already collected to distribute messages to a large group, or for a single point of contact to coordinate protesters, not unlike the operators of the Matrix (although one can forgive Andy and Larry Wachowski from sparing the audience lengthy scenes of Keanu furiously typing SMS messages back to the ship).

The service exploded, literally and figuratively, during the RNC convention in New York this month. Despite a service outage during one of the “hottest” nights of protest, when mass arrests were occurring, many regard the service as essential for keeping them up to date on the events distributed throughout the city.

The service coordinated journalists and volunteer medics, alerted protesters to the movements of police, and reminded subscribers about upcoming protests. Similar information could be found from a variety of sources – the Indymedia newsfeed, Anoise radio (which by the second day had begun broadcasting over cellphones) – but few were as immediate or accessible as the simple text messages. Reading the dated and time-stamped missives now provides a small glimpse of what it was like to be on the streets during the week, and the chaotic atmosphere in the air.

02:00:50 Thu, Sep 02 midwestmax
Developments at 100 Centre St. Hearing of writ in peril inside. More police showing up outside.

04:40:05 Thu, Sep 02 j.lee
URGENT: Come to 60 Centre @ 9:00am, courtrm #130 -judge will rule on habeas corpus writ

11:42:06 Thu, Sep 02 jb
Bush jr, Bush sr, Giuliani at 38th and Park. 50 protesters and 50 supporters.

12:34:31 Thu, Sep 02 jb
AAUP rally in Harlem is gathering at 126th and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd at 2pm.

12:52:03 Thu, Sep 02 jb
Many outraged parents gathering outside of 100 Centre St.

13:12:36 Thu, Sep 02 jb
Fountains in Union Sq. have been died red. Need media coverage

14:47:45 Thu, Sep 02 jb
Video dispatch. Federal agents trailing activists at 6th Ave and 9th St. Situation tense.

16:49:09 Thu, Sep 02 jb
Mass releases at 100 Centre soon. Reaction expected to be tremendous.

We recently had a chance to speak to speak with Tad Hirsch, Research Assistant at MIT’s Media Lab and administrator of TxtMob, shortly after the delegates left and the group was enjoying some well-deserved downtime before continuing development on new features for the service.


Openedsource.net: What gave you the idea for TxtMob?

Tad Hirsch: TxtMob was developed by a group called the Institute for Applied Autonomy, which is an anonymous collective of engineers, artists, designers and such. They developed it, and they’ve since handed it off to me. I’m going to be responsible for the next stage of its development.

Os: Can you give us a general idea of how many people were involved in the development?

TH: In the development of that project? I think it was primarily – it was really just one guy.

I mean, the collective itself is bigger. I think there’s probably 3 or 5 of them, and then they have some other people they work with on a more project-by-project basis.

Os: What inspired the project?

TH: The IAA has generally done a number of projects in the technology for activists’ space. Just before the Democratic convention in Boston, they started having conversations with a group called the Bl(A)ck Tea Society, an ad hock coalition that was arranging protest activities around the DNC.

Through those discussions, which were sort of like, ‘you know, what would be useful?’ kind of discussions, they quickly came up with this idea of having some kind of text message service that would allow them to send messages back and forth to people on the street.

There was an initial round of development that was done for the DNC, and they launched a first version of the system. Then based on the experiences at the DNC, and also through ongoing conversations with a number of different groups that were organizing protests at the RNC, they re-wrote a lot of the code and re-launched it.

Os: Was the project inspired at all by Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, or flash mobs in general?

TH: I don’t think so. I mean, they certainly were familiar with that work, but I don’t know – I wouldn’t say that there was an inspiration that was drawn from it.

Os: It was more based on the proven needs of the protesters then?

TH: I think it was much more of that nature.

I think the thing with – I think Rheingold is sort of interesting; he’s good at synthesizing a bunch of threads that are already out there. But my sense of things is that his work was more of a reference point that came after they had started the project rather than that they read the book and said, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ You know what I mean?

Because again, people have been using text messaging in protests and other kinds of ways for a little while now.

Os: Can you tell us what kind of technology was used in the implementation? We know you had a GNU-GPL license listed on the site.

TH: Yeah, that’s right. So basically there’s a fairly extensive library of custom-written code that is connected to an SQL database and runs on a Linux box.

Os: So mostly open source?

TH: Yeah, all the stuff that they’re using that they didn’t write themselves are open source packages.

Os: How many users did you have registered by the last day of the convention?

TH: By the last day of the convention, the number was something in the neighborhood of 5,500.

Os: Wow.

TH: That’s massive [laughs]

Os: What was the server load like, particularly on “hot” days, like Tuesday?

TH: Tuesday got pretty heavy. Although there were a number of delays and latencies that people experienced, my impression was that the servers they set up were actually pretty much OK; the latencies came from providers’ networks just getting hopelessly overloaded. Because again TxtMob was one thing, but in addition to that you had all the regular messaging that people were doing. So, for example, I know that Sprint’s customers had this problem where they were getting messages many hours late, and I heard reports that AT&T’s network had very similar kinds of problems.

Os: That leads into our next question – what happened on Tuesday, August 31st, around 6PM? There seemed to have been conflicting reports about who was cut off, and for how long.

TH: Oh, I see. You’re talking about T-Mobile.

Os: Pretty much.

[laughs]

TH: Here’s what I do know. So, somewhere around 6 or so, T-Mobile customers started complaining that they weren’t receiving messages. At that point I was helping do administration, so when we started getting those reports we did a series of tests where we essentially tried sending mail from that server and from a number of other servers to try to figure out what was going on.

It was pretty clear that all messages coming from the TxtMob server were being blocked to T-Mobile customers.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying that T-Mobile was politically motivated in taking some kind of action. It seems to me it’s just as likely that they have some kind of spam filter that saw a lot of traffic coming from one server and just crushed it.

The problem was that when that started happening, obviously the first thing we did was to try to get T-Mobile on the phone to talk to them to figure out what was going on and what we could do about it. After spending maybe an hour calling various members of the T-Mobile organization, we were getting nowhere. We talked to customer service people, we talked to tech support people, and what they finally said to us was that, you know, they may or may not be blocking our messages. They were not going to talk to us, and that the only thing that they were going to be responsive to would be customer complaints.

At which point we turned around and said OK – you know, we would much rather try to deal with this quietly, but then I remembered I had talked to one of their people and I said, ‘you would really rather have 500 of your customers call you and complain than just let me talk to the right guy?’ But that was what they wanted. At that point we started asking T-Mobile customers to just call and complain about it and that’s sort of where it stands.

So frankly, as of now we have about 1,000 T-Mobile subscribers on the service. To be honest, the traffic that we were sending to T-Mobile was less than we were sending to other service providers, none of whom had the same problem. So if it is just a spam filter, then they seem to have it set – it seems to be a particularly dumb filter.

Os: This was also an opt-in service.

TH: Well, that’s the thing. That’s the conversation I was hoping to have with T-Mobile to say, ‘look, it’s an opt-in service, people are choosing to receive this.’ But I think that the issue – not just for us – but I think moving forward what T-mobile needs to consider is that services like ours are going to grow. This is a well-understood problem with e-mail, because we’ve had it for so long, that when you write a spam filter you don’t simply block a server based on the amount of traffic it’s generating. You have to actually look at the content of the messages.

It seems to me that whatever they’re doing – and again, I don’t know if it was a spam filter or, you know, if there was some guy in a tech department at T-Mobile that didn’t like what we were doing and decided to throw a monkey wrench in the works – I have no way of knowing. But clearly there’s some kind of problem there that needs to be addressed on their end.

Os: Would you speculate? We’re not sure if you were aware of this, but T-Mobile President and CEO, John Stanton, and USA VP Theresa Gillespie, are both major donors to the Republican party. Stanton had once considered a run for Governor of Seattle on the GOP ticket.

TH: Yeah that’s interesting. I mean, I’m hesitant to start throwing wild accusations…

Os: Of course.

TH: What I would say is that the amount of traffic that we were sending to T-Mobile was, comparatively speaking, not that much. So I would be surprised if it was sort of a simple spam filter, and if that’s the case, then it’s entirely too sensitive. But again, I have absolutely no way of knowing. It just seemed a little odd that they were the one service that shut us down.

Os: And that’s confirmed? We know that some users on other carriers had mentioned difficulty in receiving messages. Was that just the delay due to traffic?

TH: That was what we found. Again, this is all anecdotal, but the interactions we had with, say, a Sprint customer seemed to suggest that there was a period where they were not getting messages in a timely fashion. So they were getting messages late.

Os: How and when did you get things back up and running?

TH: Well, we came up with a quick fix on Wednesday morning, which then got shut down again pretty quickly. It was a little strange because we had a fix in place and then I had a conversation with a Wall Street Journal reporter, who then called T-Mobile to get them to comment on it (I had told them we had had this fix); within an hour of that conversation we started getting blocked again.

[laughs] So, maybe it’s a coincidence, but… it seems a little strange.

We seem to have things sorted out now as far as we can tell. But, you know, who knows. I’m having this conversation with you now, so tomorrow they might shut us down again.

Os: We promise not to call T-Mobile for a response.

TH: I appreciate it [laughter].

Os: What do you think you might do to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the future? Is it possible, knowing that the distribution aspect is dependant upon the different service providers?

TH: I think it’s possible. My suspicion is that as we move forward – TxtMob is now sort of a bit more of a high profile service than it was a week ago – I suspect that one of the next steps for us is going to be actually trying to have serious conversations with all of the service providers. Just so that they know who we are and they understand how our service works, that it is an opt-in service. You know, so that there’s no sort of misunderstanding.

Os: During the convention it was acknowledged that police were “listening in” on the exchanges. At one point, there was even a call for “radio silence” on Indymedia. How do you deal with this sort of thing in the future? Is it something that can be dealt with?

TH: The way we dealt with it is we had public groups, we also had private groups, we even had secret groups that do not show up on any of the sign-up pages. My assumption from the start has been that at the very least, all of the public group traffic would be monitored. I think that’s the assumption that most of the people using the service made as well.

Frankly, I think that’s not a bad thing. I think that one of the things that was really kind of striking in the lead up to the convention was the reports that were coming out about the kind of intelligence that the police department was giving to its officers and the kinds of training that they were doing was such that it seemed that they were really prepared for some kind of massive terrorist invasion. And frankly, the more direct contact that the police officers had with the people who were actually out in the street, the more of that the better. Because if you interact with these people it’s quickly apparent that, yes, people are interested in vibrant, creative, wild experiences in the street, but generally speaking, not violent ones.

I’ve been working with activists for a number of years now and these are generally speaking, well-intentioned people. Yes, they may want to be disruptive, but not destructive. I think that the more that the police officers on the street understand that, the better.

So yeah, were they listening in? I’m sure they were. I assume that everyone using the service made that assumption as well. But I don’t see that as a terrible thing.

Os: What sort of feedback have you received, both during and after the convention, from users?

TH: It’s been overwhelmingly positive.

It turned out that this became maybe the primary way that people knew what was happening. And that was a little bit surprising. I mean, I was expecting it to be used, but I was not expecting it to be so widely used.

So, the feedback has been generally very positive, you know, ‘it was a very useful service.’ We’ve gotten a lot of suggestions; ways that it could be expanded or improved upon. We’ve also gotten a lot of interest from people not involved in activism, but who are looking at other ways that they might use something like TxtMob. As we move forward, we will look at all of that feedback and figure out how to expand the thing to support as many different uses as possible.

Os: Have any responses, either from users or the media, surprised you at all?

TH: It’s not that there were particular responses that surprised me. The use that really surprised me – you know, I feel kind of stupid saying this because in retrospect it’s totally obvious, but I just hadn’t thought about it – I was really surprised at the number of journalists who wound up using it.

When TxtMob was designed, it was really focusing on this idea that activists would be using it to share information and coordinate their activities, and that took place. But a lot of the feedback has been from journalists – both Indymedia and mainstream journalists, who essentially said that, ‘this was the only way we had of knowing what was going on.’

Os: It wasn’t being covered anywhere else.

TH: That’s right – it wasn’t covered much, and the other thing is, especially on days like Tuesday which was a big day for direct action, what you’re talking about are small actions that are taking place all over the city rather than one large, well-publicized march.

So it became the primary way for journalists to actually know what actions are going on so they could get there and cover them.

So that was pretty exciting. That wasn’t one of the driving scenarios that the IAA had in mind when they developed the system, but it’s pretty exciting to see it get used in that way.

Os: We mentioned T-Mobile possibly blocking messages as spam. How would TxtMob deal with people who might look to spam the lists?

TH: Well, we’ve done a few things already. Right now you can only send messages to groups that you are a member of, and in order to be a member of a group you have to actually provide a cell phone, and we verify that it’s a real cell phone and that you own it. That’s the first thing.

Secondly, by controlling access to groups, we think we can limit the kind of traffic that they get. So, for example, in addition to having public, private and secret groups, we’ve also got moderated and unmoderated ones. So I think it depends on the particular group.

There were a number of public unmoderated groups that people set up, and when I saw that I thought that, frankly, those were just going to be completely spammed. And I must say that I was really kind of surprised that they weren’t. For the most part, they were used really responsibly, and people tended to focus their message only to the interests of the particular group they were sending to, and yes, traffic got heavy, but it wasn’t just spam. It wasn’t like – I thought it was just going to be terrible and that those groups were going to be totally useless and that no one would want to be on them. But I was wrong. It turned out that those were actually pretty useful for people.

So part of the spam solution is in the way that we set up the service, and then the other piece of it too is that if we do start seeing a problem, we monitor the use pretty closely. Not in the sense that we sit there and eavesdrop on every group, but we’re fairly responsive when it comes to dealing with user complaints and user issues. So if someone tells us that there’s a problem with the group, we will get in there and shut it down – take whatever action we need to take, as quickly as possible.

Os: The TxtMob project was written up in major media outlets such as Wired, the Village Voice, and the AP. You mentioned the Wall Street Journal. It has been analyzed as a business tool, and there’s a ton of foreign language results if you search in Google. What do you think of all this attention?

TH: I think it’s great. It’s really exciting. It shows that we seem to have stumbled upon something for which there is a significant amount of interest. And frankly, that’s going to keep the project moving forward. I mean, if there were no interest, we would drop it. [laughs]

But since there is that level of interest, that’s the nourishment that the project needs and it means that we will continue to work on it. We’re looking to bring more people in to develop it, and it seems like its got a really good future.

Os: Did you notice that you started getting a lot more registered users after being linked to from places like the front page of Indymedia, Boingboing, Slashdot…

TH: Oh my god – I didn’t know we got Slashdotted! [laughter] I can’t believe I missed that – that’s like a major milestone.

I wouldn’t say that I noticed a particular spike in traffic after one particular link, but as the word started getting out and as press coverage increased, we certainly have seen an increase in users. I think that’s how we went from, at the end of the DNC, there was something like 260 people registered on the service. And, you know, now it’s over 6,000.

Os: What are your political leanings? Do you think that will influence the development of the tool? Or is the tool more of just an autonomous communications medium.

TH: I think my motivations in working on this, and I think the motivations for the IAA, do not come from the embracing of either the Democratic or Republican party platform, but rather a real commitment to encouraging and fostering free expression and free speech.

So, the decision that was made very early on during project development was not to simply make a tool that one or several particular groups could use for their own ends, but rather to try to develop a generally useful tool that just about anyone could take advantage of. So, as we move forward, that’s going to continue to be our driving force, our driving motivation.

I’m not motivated to embrace a particular ideology, but rather I will continue to develop this project based on people’s interest in using it.

Os: Can you talk about future plans for the service?

TH: I can talk a little bit – that stuff is still very much in development at this point. One of the things that I think we are facing is that this project was really developed primarily by one person totally without any kind of institutional support or any kind of funding or anything like that.

I think at this point we are at the limit of what can be achieved that way. So there are a few things that need to be addressed in the immediate future. One is obviously building or expanding the number of people that are directly involved in development, and towards that end there will be a public release of the source code in concordance with the public license with the intention of increasing the number of people who are actually doing development work.

Then, the second thing is looking for organizational and financial support to help grow the service. So, that’s what needs to happen – we’re right now n the process of figuring out what the best way to do that is, and hopefully we should have that worked out fairly soon.

Os: In the last e-mail that you sent to subscribers, you mention plans to expand the service to support international messaging.

TH: Yeah, again, we’ve gotten a lot of interest from Europe – primarily from Europe, but also some African countries, Australia, and South America. The interest is there, so one of the things that we’ll have to tackle soon is how to do that.

Os: Do you think it will have more of an impact in nations more reliant on the cell phone, and where SMS is more prevalent?

TH: I would imagine so. Intuitively, that seems to be the case. But we’ll know when we get there.

Os: Do you think a service like TxtMob has the capacity to influence the upcoming U.S. presidential election in the same way that this year’s Spanish elections results have largely been attributed to SMS messaging?

TH: I don’t know. [laughs] Gee that would be cool!

We’ll see. I mean, this actually gets back to your previous question – in European countries, for example, where you say as SMS usage is so much more prevalent, then it is much more of a viable organizing tool. Here it’s still very much of a growing phenomenon. So, it certainly seems to be a useful tool to mobilize a relatively large number of a relatively small minority of the population. [laughs]

Whether or not that would be enough to have any demonstratable impact on the upcoming election; my gut would tell me that not this time around, but by 2008 I think we might if things continue to develop as they have been. That SMS is probably going to be a much more important factor in political organizing generally, and then specifically in electoral politics.
---------
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/1.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.
See also:
http://www.txtmob.com
http://www.openedsource.net

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Comments

Re: Interview with Tad Hirsch of MIT and TxtMob.com
24 Sep 2004
As a protester at the RNC who participated in several "actions" and "performance art" displays, my buddies and I used textmob and other e-list and text-messaging services.

It was a very handy service to have available. It helped remind us of events that we wanted to attend. And it also helped us reorient ourselves during the day within the city... If we wanted to make event A at this time, event B at a later time, and event C was textmobed between them... we could check our map and see if we could swing by at the intermediate textmob announced event too.

Of note, the police checked cell phone "histories" of several IndyMedia reporters for textmob and other related messages. They described the textmob acts as "protester activity" and even threatened arrest to one reporter from Seattle for having "evidence of intent to commit crimes" on his person.

Just a little first hand experience, and second hand knowledge for those who are interested in the topic.
T-Mobile Sucks
24 Sep 2004
T-Mobile is a Bush Lover.
I'm glad that text messaging was useful at the RNC! Without it? More arrests!
Re: Interview with Tad Hirsch of MIT and TxtMob.com
26 Sep 2004
Please note that there was an error in transcription - the question should have read "former president", but I have revised it to indicate Stanton's current position as chairman of the Board of Directors of T-mobile. We have also added the following information to the article:

Chairman of the Board of Directors of T-Mobile, John Stanton, was incorrectly identified as the President and CEO of T-Mobile. Stanton served as President and CEO of T-Mobile until the First Quarter of 2003, when he named Robert Dotson acting President to pursue a career in politics. For full details on Stanton’s 2004 donations to the Republican party, please visit: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/news/local/politics/top50donors.pdf
Re: Interview with Tad Hirsch of MIT and TxtMob.com
28 Sep 2004
Thanx Boston IMC for picking up the story and for all the feedback.

Please note that this article was written by http://www.openedsource.net and NOT opensourced.net as credited.

Again many thanks,
-a
http://www.openedsource.net/blog/
Re: Interview with Tad Hirsch of MIT and TxtMob.com
30 Sep 2004
Fascinating. It will be great to see how this turns out in its next phase! Thanks for a comprehensive, interesting article explaining something that was entirely new for me... very, very impressive.
Re: Interview with Tad Hirsch of MIT and TxtMob.com
01 Oct 2004
Thank you for all the feedback -it's been very helpful.

We hope to contribute more articles in the near future.
-aria

www.openedsource.net/blog
Re: Interview with Tad Hirsch of MIT and TxtMob.com
02 Oct 2004
hey thanks for this story. tad's impact in boston was wonderful even though it there were a lot of issues that came up having txt made it much easyer for those of us being pt people for medics, convergance etc to be on the same page. folks should relize the amount of time and energy it took to get the system running and how much work tad put in for all of us this summer from the techical end to endless meetings.
as if i haven't said it enough times
hip-hip-horray for tad