About Directionless Enquiries

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Contents

Introduction

I'm lost in a part of a city I don't know. I'm looking for a small music venue I heard about online that nobody I ask on the street knows about. By chance, I see someone wearing a t-shirt of the band that's playing, so I ask them, and they guide me to the venue. We go in together and we discover, while enjoying a drink and a chat, that we have lots of friends in common. I have a great night. But what if I hadn't bumped into that person? Wouldn't it be great if I could phone a friend who is always there on the end of the line, ready to answer any questions: Where's the nearest good kebab shop? who killed Robespierre? Which colour is positive when wiring a US plug?

Directionless Enquiries is a system which allows exactly this: connecting people looking for help with people who would like to help others, on the way putting people in touch with each other and sharing information about the world that is helpful for everyone.

How it Works

There are two roles in the system - the caller and the agent. People switch between these two roles. When I'm out on the street, I'm the caller, when I'm at home or in the office, sitting in front of my computer, I can be the agent.

Registration

To join the system, I register two contact details: my mobile phone number, and a VoIP address. I also say which areas of the world I know about: downtown LA, central and east London, Jakarta, East Grinstead. Then I just fire up my VoIP client, which logs me into the system, and I specify that I'm ready to recieve Directionless Enquiries.

Out on the Street

I call a local phone number designated to a certain area, e.g. London. After the call is answered by the phone relay, I use the keypad of my mobile phone to specify an area of interest within the city:

   1  2  3
  NW  N NE
   
   4  5  6            
   W  C  E            C = Central

   7  8  9
  SW  S SE

Now the system has knows where I want to talk about, so it selects an agent with the relevant knowledge. It selects Mandy. She knows all about central London, and she's online at home, waiting for a call.

Mandy and I chat, and she tells me that The Convention killed Robespierre, and that the Kebab shops near Trafalgar square are lethal, but Gaby's cafe on Charring Cross Road does a fantastic salt beef special. When I get home and get online, I see that Mandy is a new contact, I loved Gabys so we chat about it later online and we arrange to go there together.

Technical rundown

In order for the phone relay to work the following components are needed:

  • an interface to the PSTN (old phone system) so that a local phone number can be provided for people to call in.
  • A database of users, so that it can verify the identity of the caller as well as store information about the agents, e.g. their availability, the VoIP numbers and the areas they are familiar with.
  • The web / voip client interface in which agents can set their availability.
  • The mechanism to route through the calls.


Directionless Knowledgebase

The purpose of this database/portal is to gather and distribute knowledge about locations, and to make it available to members of the community.

One of the exciting possibilities of Directionless Enquiries is that it provides a fast changing map of the city, inferred from what questions people are asking, and what answers they're getting. If five people ask about a music event in Haggerston on a Wednesday night, we can be fairly sure that there's something musical going on in Haggerston, and we can tell each other about it.

Over time the database will grow richer and richer, and as more people use it will also contain more accurate information, especially about temporal events, e.g. parties and events that are sometimes not very well represented online (although calendar sharing services are doing that to some extent now - eg. upcoming.org / evnt.org / evdb.com etc..)

The database needs the following components:

  • Physical addresses.
  • Logical locations, mapped to these addresses.
  • Events happening at locations, with information about their duration.
  • Web interface to quickly create the information. The speed of entry is of real importance - it should be possible for an agent to enter information in real time while taking a call.
  • Quick interface to query information.
  • Navigational tools to locate the caller and to navigate her to her destination.
  • Interface to be used by other systems (API) to allow system integration.


Topics of Interest

In the first phase the system will be used to answer location based questions. In a second step it is planned expand the understanding of the term 'area' to 'topics'. Many people have specific knowledge which they would be happy to share with other similarly minded people. Using Directionless Enquiries people could find other people to talk to about their hobbies, languages, fields of experience etc..

Software Development Methodology

In order to create the system in an affordable, understandable and reliable way the core software used is going to be Open Source. This means software that is available for no cost, allows the freedom to change it and redistribute it.

We will also try to develop plug-ins for all Voip Clients - particularly popular ones such as Skype, which would make the system most accessible to the largeest number of people.

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