Free Cellphones for Low-income Households

There is a federal program that offers a monthly subsidy of $9.25 per month to people with low-income (income that is at or below 135% of the federal Poverty Guidelines or participate in a select few assistance programs). It is called the Lifeline program and the FCC oversees it. The lifeline program is limited to one-per-household. It is not funded with Federal tax dollars; instead telephone service providers are required to fund the program. They usually do this by adding a separate charge to customers’ bills every month. In my cell phone bill it is called the ‘Federal Universal Service Charge’ and costs me $1.25 a month.

The program has in recent years been labeled as ‘Obama phones’. This may have something to do with a notorious and dubious video that went viral and that the media latched onto in 2012. Perhaps more appropriately, increased scrutiny over the program was due to the rampant corruption and fraud taking place in the Lifeline program and reported in 2012 and 2013 (“FCC: 41 percent of Lifeline phone subsidies in 2012 weren’t verified,” n.d.).

The Lifeline program actually began its life much earlier. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 created the Universal Service Fund (USF), which required all telecommunication carriers to contribute to the USF, used to provide low-income families with Lifeline Assistance.

(Note: Some sources are actually claiming the Lifeline program began in 1985, but I haven’t been able to verify that claim)

In 2005, Lifeline discounts were made available to qualifying low-income consumers on pre-paid wireless service plans in addition to traditional landline service (“Lifeline Program for Low-Income Consumers,” n.d.).

In 2008 the FCC allowed wireless carrier Tracfone to join the program’s list of approved providers (Malter, 2012). Tracfone is a subsidiary of Mexico’s largest telecommunications company América Móvil and has holding agreements with the United States’ largest wireless network operators to provide service using their networks, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, Sprint Corporation, T-Mobile US, and U.S. Cellular.

In 2008 Tracfone wireless was building a big business and the FCC agreed for them to give eligible customers prepaid customers lifeline minutes upfront with a free phone changed the game. Tracfone has aggressively gone after Lifeline customers. It advertises its “free phone” on television, pays commissioned street teams to canvas low-income neighborhoods for new subscribers. They have over 4 million lifeline subscribers in their Safelink program, and collected $452 million in 2011 from the program’s subsidies (Malter, 2012). They are the largest provider in the Lifeline program.

Unfortunately when steps were taken in the 2000s to open the program to mobile wireless service, controls were not taken to protect against waste, fraud, and abuse. As a result of these decisions, the program almost tripled in size from 2008 (about $784 million) to 2012(almost $2.2 billion)(“STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN TOM WHEELER,” n.d.)



On January 31, 2012, the FCC adopted comprehensive reform and modernization of the Lifeline program (“Lifeline Program for Low-Income Consumers,” n.d.). The FCC implemented anti-fraud measures, increasing the use of eligibility databases to enable automated verification of consumers’ Lifeline eligibility and creating a National Lifeline Accountability Database to prevent multiple carriers from receiving support from the same subscriber. The agency said it canceled 800,000 duplicate contracts and expected to save $200 million in 2012 (Malter, 2012). These were much needed reforms as previously the FCC allowed consumers to self-certify (Ante, n.d.).

This year the FCC allowed Lifeline recipients to buy broadband with their subsidy too. The amount of the subsidy will stay the same.


Closing Thoughts

I support the Lifeline program now that it has been reformed. Communication is such an integral part of our society, and it is hard for me to imagine functioning without a cell phone. I was without a cellphone earlier last month for three days after it got wet in the rain and I felt deprived. Specifically looking at the homelessness, I believe this can be an enabler for the homeless to get connected with much needed services that are available to them. This can be an extremely cost-effective way to help people help themselves by providing them with a pathway to be connected with the rest of society. It is hard to get a job without a phone.

I was looking at the Safelink website (TracFone brand) and they advertise a free cell phone for Lifelink subscribers, 500 Free Minutes and unlimited texts per month for the first 4 Months, and 250 Minutes and Unlimited Texts per month thereafter. That is a pretty good deal for not paying anything.

Recently this month FCC has reached an agreement with TracFone for them to unlock all of their handsets.  The Bureau’s investigation found that TracFone violated agency rules by improperly certifying that it would unlock phones for its customers enrolled in the FCC’s Lifeline program (“FCC Reaches Agreement with TracFone to Unlock Mobile Phones,” n.d.).



Ante, S. E. (n.d.). Millions Improperly Claimed U.S. Phone Subsidies. Retrieved July 7, 2015, from

FCC: 41 percent of Lifeline phone subsidies in 2012 weren’t verified. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2015, from

FCC Reaches Agreement with TracFone to Unlock Mobile Phones. (n.d.). Retrieved July 6, 2015, from

Goldman, D. (2015, June 18). “Obamaphones” expand to Internet use. Retrieved July 6, 2015, from

Lifeline Program for Low-Income Consumers. (n.d.). Retrieved July 6, 2015, from

Malter, J. (2012, October 26). Who gets rich off “free” government phones. Retrieved July 6, 2015, from



How I think about GIS

GIS is my profession. What is GIS? I suppose about half the people who I talk to know what it is. It can stand for either Geographic Information Systems or Geographic Information Science. Although I once read it can also stand for Geographic Information Services. Geographic Information Systems collect, store, analyze, present, and disseminate geographic data. Geographic Information Science is the science behind all of this.

Even if someone doesn’t know what GIS is they have still used a GIS. Everybody has used Google Maps or Google Earth. Everyone uses a GPS navigation system to get somewhere. Geographic data is being presented and disseminated to you so you can make better decisions. Many times user location data is being collected automatically by the application to improve performance. User location data is very valuable because it can also be used for advertising as well as be used to improve algorithms for other services. A tremendous amount of work has gone into creating all of these maps. Much of the technology used to make these applications and analysis is intelligently hidden from the user.

Before GIS there were only maps. Computers revolutionized maps and the result was GIS. By understanding the transformation undergone by geographic information as it has moved from paper map to machine, you can understand GIS. Roger Tomlinson, also known as the father of GIS, coined the term GIS in the 1960s. It was in 1962 he presented a paper entitled, “Computer Mapping: An Introduction to the Use of Electronic Computers in the Storage, Compilation and Assessment of Natural and Economic Data for the Evaluation of Marginal Lands” at the National Land Capability Inventory Seminar in Ottawa. To provide a frame of reference, the first interactive game (SpaceWar!) was created in 1962. Computers wouldn’t even become mainstream for another two decades. Computers are still evolving, and so is GIS. I personally think the most interesting part of GIS right now is Web-based GIS.

Some important topics in GIScience include data collection, spatial data structures, spatial statistics, spatial analysis, visualization and data discovery. Here is a list of some examples:

Data collection: satellites, sensors, digitizing, crowdsourcing

Spatial data structures: spatial databases, topology, rasters, and vectors

Spatial analysis: spatial overlays, simulation and modeling, cellular automata, network analysis, classification, viewsheds, and watersheds

Spatial statistics and relationships (type of analysis): interpolation, spatial regression, and spatial autocorrelation

Visualization and data discovery: interactive maps, geographic information retrieval and spatial search

GIS professionals use Google Maps and Google Earth because they are the best tools for what they do. They use other software as well depending on the task at hand. ESRI’s ArcGIS software has the biggest market share, but there are other types of proprietary GIS software. It is also possible to do almost any GIS task using completely free and open source GIS software. Finally, you don’t even have to be a GIS professional to contribute edits to OpenStreetMap, the free editable map of the world.

I had to include at least one map in my GIS post. Here is a screen of my Walking Dead Twitter Map for my WebGIS class. Halloween tiles courtesy of Mapbox

I had to include at least one map in my GIS post. Here is a screen of my Walking Dead Twitter Map for my WebGIS class. Halloween tiles courtesy of Mapbox

Credits: Many ideas for this post were taken from Twenty years of progress: GIScience in 2010 by Michael F. Goodchild.



iBeacon is a piece of Bluetooth location based tech that was introduced in iOS 7 and is also found in the latest version of Android. It is relatively simple in concept. A Bluetooth transmitter emits a signal and your phone can pick it up. That’s basically it. But please don’t stop reading. Big things have small beginnings.

I attended an iBeacon Meetup recently to learn more about it. It was at in DC, a very cool place for start-ups and the like. Three presentations were given about iBeacon. The first one was the most comprehensive, given by Radius Networks, a whole company that seems to be built around working with iBeacon. The presenter did a great job talking about the potential of iBeacon, its capabilities, and limitations.

The event had a bunch of iBeacons around the room and an App that we could download and start detecting iBeacons. iBeacons have a range of about 50 meters and are just bluetooth transmitters. They can come in many forms such as a battery powered dongle, usb hub, laptop, or even your iPhone itself. All they do is emit a three-part identifier every second or more. There is also a signal strength value that enables a rough estimate of distance from phone. iBeacons don’t transfer any actual information.

iBeacon usb hub

iBeacon usb hub

Using a unique identifier iPhones can detect iBeacons of a certain type. The user will have to have a specific application on their phone to see the right iBeacons. The iPhone can monitor for the right iBeacons and when one is found it can launch the application for 5 seconds. Enough time for instance, to display a notification on your phone. The second presenter gave a neat demo of a food stand having an app. When the customer walked into the store the app would open with the latest menu, the customer could order with their phone and be notified when their order was ready.

The most important thing I learned about iBeacon was that iBeacon is not good for providing accurate indoor locations. This is what I would be most interested in, I have done some research in micro-geographical spaces. I think this is a rather technological challenge, because I think you need some rather precise clocks to accurately measure signals between the transmitter and receiver in such close areas. I’m no expert in this area however.

Nevertheless I think iBeacon is still a cool feature and I can see it taking off in the next year. It would definitely be useful for making purchases in physical locations and interacting with displays. I think some creative people will find uses for it in games as well.


Designing Accessible Maps

When making maps or any type of graphic I never thought of how the product would be perceived to people who have color vision impairment. I didn’t know how big of an issue it was. After reading Benhard and Nathaniel’s Color Design for the Color Vision Impaired paper I now know it affects a significant amount of people, especially men. Therefore I agree it is preferable to create maps that can be understood by people who have color vision impairment.

I think that this type of design consideration will not always be followed because of the increased overhead it requires. Maybe some designers will not follow these best practices if they are not enforced. Other reasons for designers not making maps for the vision impaired include ignorance of the situation or some designers will not want to sacrifice their original design to cater to people who have color vision impairment.

I believe that the best remedy would be to cure people of their color-blindness by injecting trillions of copies of a genetically engineered virus into their retina. DeWeerdt’s Seeing Red paper explained how this has been tested on squirrel monkeys and enabled their cone cells to produce red-sensitive pigment. Why should us as cartographers alter our maps just accommodate less than 10 percent of the population? Of course I’m not being serious. Fortunately there are guidelines out there on how to make your maps better for those who have color vision impairment.

For every type of user, spectral color schemas, otherwise known as rainbow color schemas are not recommended for quantitative or ordered data. This is because there is no inherent magnitude message in a rainbow. In Spectral Schemes: Controversial Color Use on Maps, Brewer believes that spectral color schemes should be encouraged for diverging quantitative data. I agree somewhat, more so if a diverging spectral scheme is matched with diverging data. I think spectral schemes have an advantage of the amount of different hues they use, I think that this increased ‘spectral resolution’ can bring out details in the dataset. The disadvantage is that I don’t have any association of magnitude between green and blue. Reading Brewer’s paper I have come to appreciate the diverging two-tone spectral scheme:

Brewer gives some recommendations for people who have color vision impairment. Skipping over yellow-greens should accommodate map-readers with red-green visual impairment. I think this is a fairly straightforward rule I can remember. I also stumbled upon, a site that helps you pick appropriate color schemes. Copyrighted by Cynthia Brewer, Mark Harrower and The Pennsylvania State University. Clever play on words Cynthia! In the Bernhard paper a piece of software called Color Oracle is mentioned. I installed this and think it is great. With just one button click you can quickly see how people with Deuteranopia, Protanopia, or Tritanopia see. This can be a very useful tool for cartographers creating barrier-free maps!



Coding is a great skill to have. is going back to school to get a degree in Computer Science. It had been said that learning to program is like the literacy of the 21st century. You don’t have to be a professional programmer to learn. Writing code might help you write a macro to automate some routine tasks you do at work. Or maybe you can now design that kick ass website and finally implement that idea had in your head for years. Now you’ll have something to talk about when you go on that date with your geek crush (You had me at “Hello World.”).

I have been into computers and technology for a long time, and my profession is highly intertwined with computing. However, early on I have shied away from coding. Either I didn’t fully understand what it was about, was intimidated, or didn’t put in the effort to learn. Also, many of the books out there are very dry and a pain to learn from. Nevertheless, over the years I have gone through introductory books on several programming languages. It was enough to help me in both work and school.

Even though I know a little bit about several languages, I would like to strive to an expert in one. I have this project that I recently completed that involved me scraping information from different websites and saving it on spreadsheets. After doing some research online, I decided that coding this task in Python would work best for me. The prior year I went through Head First Python. It was really good; in fact I recommend for beginners just about any book in the O’REILLY Head First series. Unfortunately, since I haven’t touched Python in a whole year, I had forgotten too much to just dive back in.

Anyways I started learning Python again from two new sites: Real Python and Code Academy. Real Python is a Kickstarter project and seemed good, but it was in the end it was just a pdf and I never got more than 1/3 through it. The truth is that Code Academy stole the spotlight away and I ended up finishing the whole course in under two weeks. After that I was able to dive into my scraping project and know enough Python to finish it. I’ll save my full review for the next post!


1st Status Update

Time as been flying by fast since the project officially kicked off on Sept 18th. Our team has been hard at work; today we had our first progress report. All of the teams had 10 minutes to share their progress with the rest of the teams.

I presented Looking Glass’s report with the assistance of the white board. The key to making a successful presentation was to describe our group’s concept concisely and make it relevant to the audience. It is important to hit on the main points without distracting the audience with technical details. Also, it is important to give the audience a direction of where we want to go without giving too much away.

In addition to giving a successful presentation I enjoyed listening to what progress the other groups are making. Our audience was bigger than expected and I was able to make a few contacts that will hopefully help us on our journey!

DARPA Innovation House

This is the post where I get to brag about what I’m doing. I’m the lead developer for one of the teams selected for the DARPA House Innovation Project. This is an eight week program that started on Sept 17th. This came at a great time for me as I wrapped up my summer internship as well as completed all my thesis requirements in August.

Let me share some of the DARPA Innohouse press kit:

It feels great to be working for the agency that created the internet and was critical in the development of UAVs. I first took notice about the project in July reading, a technology blog that I read practically daily. I decided to put together a proposal and a team and apply; and now here I am!

Our team is called Looking Glass. We are creating software that can extract meaningful information that is relevant to the user and present it to them in a meaningful way. We have reshaped our concept several times since beginning our project and are approaching this problem from different angles. I have started a new blog for our team at I’ll work on linking our team posts for Looking Glass to my personal blog site.

DARPA is experimenting on the feasibility of effective software design and development in a short-fuse, ‘crucible-style’ living and working environment. I have heard some chatter around the office that we might be lab rats in some type of social experiment.

There are lots of resources at our disposal some amazing mentors to help guide us. This is important as the objectives are not well defined on purpose, it seems like they really don’t want to risk constraining us. So far I have been working many hours and learning a ton. I feel like I need to work twice as hard in order to stand out amongst the other teams. At the same time this project is more of a collaborative effort and everyone has been really friendly and supportive so far. There are six teams total, and I am surrounded by a lot of talent; from nuclear physicists to digital signal experts to artists.


One week before project starts

Over the past few weeks I have been keeping myself busy gearing up for the DARPA Innovation House project. At the same time I haven’t been trying to over-exert myself. My full team won’t be physically located together until the project officially starts. This makes it important to proceed carefully and make sure we have strong lines of communication open. I have spent considerable amount of time setting up the collaboration tools and researching various software components we will be using.

We are tacking a very complex solution in a very short time period. Our vision comprises integrating many different types of software and databases. Figuring out how to structure all of the different components and making them communicate with each other is an ongoing challenge. The amount of different technologies available can be overwhelming at times. We are still looking to add a core web developer to our team. They would be very helpful during the implementation phase.