Timothy McNerney

Calling Card Stories

A calling card system as a storytelling device.


Design Workshop,Redial: Interactive Telephony,Show and Tell Studio II - sec 01

Calling Card Stories uses the functionality of a calling card system to tell stories. You start by getting a calling card with set minutes. You are then prompted to enter a pin upon dialing an access number. You use your available minutes to hear chapters of a story. The stories you will be hearing for this version of the project come from a series of recorded conversations between my family members living in both California and Mexico.

You may hang up at any time during the story, the calling card system will remember your most recent chapter location when you call back. If you reach the end of the story before your minutes run out, you are invited to record a response which will get posted to the Calling Card Stories (callingcardstories.org) web site.

Please note that there is a connection charge applied to your first minute of every call. Surcharges apply to calls made from payphones. A maintenance fee will be charged for every week you keep a balance on your card. You have 90 days to use your minutes before they expire. Other terms and conditions apply.

In this country, the use of calling cards is particularly prevalent among newly-arrived immigrants. Most calling card pricing schemes are structured in a way to provide the lowest rates for one long conversation and penalize multiple call use. Furthermore, the fees, charges, and other fine print of most calling cards adds yet another layer of difficulty to the task of staying in touch with family back home.

It is usually cheaper to place an international call from the U.S. than it is to call from another country into the U.S. This is the case for Mexico-U.S. telecommunications. What my family in Mexico will often do is "flash" or give a quick call to someone in the U.S. to indicate conversation availability. The family member stateside will then call Mexico back, bearing the cost of the call where the minutes are cheaper.

My target audience is anyone who likes to use the phone.

User Scenario
You pick up a calling card, dial the access number, and enter your PIN. Your remaining minutes are announced and you are immediately connected to the story. There is opening music, then the first conversation. The conversation ends and you hear some interstitial music, then the next conversation plays. Unfortunately you are interrupted and must hang up before finishing the second conversation.

Later on that day you decide to call back to finish hearing the stories. You dial the access number, enter the PIN and are taken to the second conversation where you last left off. You finish listening to the remaining conversations until you reach the end where you are prompted to leave a message. You make a comment about how you were touched by the family stories that emerged through the series of conversations. This voice comment gets posted to the callingcardstories.org web site.

The calling card system is built using Asterisk, PHP and a MySQL database. The Asterisk dialplan interacts with the PHP file, the PHP file has access to Asterisk functionality using the Asterisk Gateway Interface (AGI). Callers are identified by their phone numbers. These numbers, PIN and minutes are stored in the database. The PHP file updates this information continually during the call.

The callingcardstories.org web site is a Wordpress blog. Voice comments left at the end of the story are sent via email and posted to the callingcardstories.org web site using a PERL script that parses the email for audio content.

Through this project I have accomplished two things: I have created a system that can tell a serialized story. I have also created a way for people in Mexico to make affordable calls to the U.S.

It was interesting to learn that there is a high demand to make affordable calls in Mexico. Because it is much more costly at present to call the U.S. from Mexico, people have found ways (such as "flashing" or making a quick call to have the recipient call back on his/her dime,) to make staying in touch affordable.

With regards to the technical aspect, I increased my PHP and MySQL skills and became a much more competent coder overall. This will be very useful to me going forward.