Helping to save the world, one Max patch at a time

In early 2010 Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake that left the already destabilized country in ruin and chaos. Many homes and a good deal of the country’s basic infrastructure were demolished, and the country needed urgent help on basic things like temporary housing, food and water supplies.

Ibis is a Danish aid-foundation working with educational programmes in Latin America and Africa; they’re primarily funded by the Danish government and private donors. The Ibis organization is also a part of Alliance 2015, a partnership of seven like-minded non-government organizations working in the field of development cooperation.

Through Alliance 2015, Ibis was asked and committed to fundraising to help the victims of the catastrophe in Haiti, though the organisation had little or no experience raising money for emergency aid. Since decisions had to be made quickly prior to the catastrophe, Ibis wanted to create an SMS campaign where people could donate money by sending an SMS.

But Ibis had no tools to drive an SMS campaign, so I decided to build an SMS gateway in MAX that used bits and pieces from one of my earlier sound installations called “Random Ghost”.

I created the Random Ghost art installation for the exhibition “No Place to Hide” at SNYK in Denmark in 2009. The art piece monitors and captures the visitors at the exhibition space by recording their sonic footprints, and tries to match the sound currently in the room with earlier recordings. The nearest match is then distributed to a matrix of speakers that lets the sound to wander across the museum like the ghosts of previous visitors.

In order to make this work, a good deal of database processing was done. I used Max to program the portion of the installation software that both connected to the database and handled parsing.

The Ibis organization used an SQL database to keep track of their donors and their mobile numbers. I used the database connection patch I’d written for the Random Ghost installation, and I also used the parser I’d patched up to compile and queue text strings that contained the mobile number and a text message about pledging in a format that would be understood by an SMS server.

As people began to respond and to pledge, the data was written back so that Ibis could monitor the progress of the campaign on a daily basis.

The patching to set up the gateway took around 3 hours to create. By the end of the day on which the Haitian catastrophe occurred, all of the Ibis organization’s members and donors knew that they could assist the survivors of the Haitian earthquake by using their mobile phones.

During the month that the gateway was up and running, Max helped Ibis to raise around $50,000. Our planes were one of the first planes to touch down in Haiti after the disaster.

There’s one interesting and kind of funny part of this whole story, though…..

As I was developing the interface, I used my own mobile phone for testing. Somehow or other, the server understood that a donation to the cause should be made every time an SMS message was received, and it didn’t respond to that initial message. This meant that every time I tested the gateway, money was withdrawn from my mobile account. Just about the time I was about to click on the “bang” message on my patch and send out around 1000 SMS messages, I was contacted by my service provider and told that my mobile account was not only empty, but that I owed them a very sizeable amount of money.

Everything was done in MAX

Do you remember the first Max patch you ever made? What was it?

I do have a vague memory of it being a filter to sort frequencies so I could apply effects to different parts of the frequency range.

How did you come up with this project idea?

When the department needed an SMS gateway, I had a really clear idea; that I had the bits and pieces of code to make the gateway in MAX.

What sorts of problems did you have to solve?

I needed to turn a quite destructive and idiosyncratic artpiece into a very stringent moneymaking machine.

If there were one person who you would want to see your project, who would it be?

The person who thinks that is waste to spent money on art-projects.

At the conclusion of this project were you:
a) exhausted
b) ready to do a new one
c) thinking of ways to expand it
d) [other, please describe]

I was relieved.

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