Open Innovation versus Nuisance Robot Calls

Published Sep-21-15

An innovative app captures robocalls and prevents them from getting through to phone users.

Federal Trade Commission, United States

The Story:

Open Innovation versus Nuisance Robot Calls It doesn't matter how much they anger and frustrate, the robocalls still keep coming. These are the automated phone calls that consumers and homeowners find intrusive and a nuisance. Sometimes they are pesky promotional calls from companies trying to flog their wares. But in the most extreme cases, they can facilitate fraud.

Well, technology is fighting back with innovations to stop the unsolicited calls from getting through.

At War with the Robots

Following the success of its previous open innovation challenges to solve the problem, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched another contest in 2015.

Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back issued two challenges that sought a new wave of solutions for a crowdsourced honeypot and better ways to analyze data from an existing honeypot. A honeypot is the name given to a neat information system that lures and analyses the illegal automated calls.

FTC’s first robocall contest was in 2012 and it resulted in more than 800 submissions and two solutions that are available in the marketplace today. The commission is keen to build on the success it has so far achieved through an open innovation approach.

Open Innovation Prize Winner

In 2015, the top prize and a check for $25,000 went to Ethan Garr and Bryan Moyles for their mobile app called RoboKiller that works on both landlines and mobile phones. At the time of writing this article in September 2015, a beta version of the solution is available for free download from the Apple App Store and GooglePlay Store.

The ingenious app uses audio-fingerprinting to determine whether a call is from a robot or a genuine human. The technology tricks the robocallers into playing their messages earlier so that the analysis can start. This happens even before a person’s phone starts ringing. When a robot call is detected it is sent into a spam box within the app and it never rings through to the consumer. Only humans get through.

All those who took part in the contest retained the intellectual property rights of their solutions.

The second FTC robocall competition was DetectaRobo, a hackathon that was part of a National Day of Civic Hacking. Participants were tasked with analyzing data from an existing honeypot to come up with algorithms that could predict which calls were likely to be robocalls. Nineteen contestants took part and the winners were Ved Deshpande and M. Henry Linder (Team HaV).

Brilliant Solutions from the Crowd

The FTC is engaged in a multi-effort campaign against robocalls:

“We’re using many strategies to fight robocalls, including law enforcement, education, and crowdsourced innovation,” said Jessica Rich, Director, FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.”

By engaging with the crowd, the independent agency of the US government is dipping into a deep and wide talent pool of intellectual resources that is helping it to find rapid and smart solutions.

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