OpenSignal Blog

One of the ‘E’s in EE will soon stand for emergency

An interesting bit of news emerged last week in Europe: The U.K. Home Office has awarded a major government communications contract to mobile provider Everything Everywhere. What’s unusual about this contract is the types of government employees EE will serve. Instead of connecting the mobile phones of bureaucrats and everyday civil servants, EE will be providing the emergency voice and data communications for 300,000 police officers, paramedics and other first responders.

The U.K. has its own dedicated digital communications network today called Airwave, but it’s based on an outdated and slow technology called Tetra. The appeal of switching to a commercial network like EE’s are obvious: emergency workers get access to much faster speeds and use commonly mobile phones and hardware as their emergency radios, while the Home Office saves millions of pounds annually in network operations and maintenance cost.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Lydia

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Lydia

There is a downside, though, to farming out emergency communications to the private sector. Commercial operators and emergency agencies have different motivations when planning and building their networks. In public safety the overarching concern is reliability, since the whole point of an emergency network is that it be available during emergencies. Commercial carriers want to build reliable networks as well, but they also have to balance reliability against efficiency and profit. That often means there are places their networks just won’t reach.

You can imagine the worse case scenarios here: A cop can’t call for backup because he or she can’t get a signal, or an ambulance crew can’t download medical records for a dying patient because the network is congested. In our most recent global LTE report, OpenSignal found that EE customers remained connected to its LTE network 59 percent of the time. That was the best time-coverage performance we measured from any U.K. operator, but I suspect it’s still a fry cry from the reliability any first responder would want when faced with a life-or-death situation.

EE, however, is doing a lot to make its commercial network act more like an emergency network. It’s building 500 new cell sites and expanding its footprint into uncovered rural areas. The operator also is creating what amounts to a parallel emergency network within its commercial network so first responders aren’t competing with consumers for network resources. EE is even turning on push-to-talk services so emergency workers can use their phones and radios like walkie-talkies.

The Home Office wants to shift all emergency communications over to EE’s network by mid-2017 so this transition is going to happen fast. You can bet governments and public safety agencies around the world will be watching, too. The European Commission is investigating whether emergency communications could be moved from public to private hands, and the U.S. is attempting to create a shared public-private LTE network that could be used as a nationwide emergency communications system.

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10 gadgets, gizmos and contraptions OpenSignalers love

The holidays are upon us, and that means we’re starting to see gift guides galore. At OpenSignal we didn’t want to publish the same list of hot new digital gizmos you can read about on any other blog. Instead we conducted a poll, asking OpenSignalers to name the objects and devices they gained the most pleasure from using in their daily lives.

The resulting list contains many traditional tech gadgets but it also holds some not-so-obvious items. Some of them hark back to a pre-digital mechanical age. Some of them are old standbys appliances that continue to prove their utility. One of them may well be purely imaginary. Enjoy, and let us know what you think of our list in the comments below.

Antoine Auberger, Full Stack Web Developer
Micro Luggage

Antoine Micro Luggage

Scooter-maker Micro has built a rolling suitcase that doubles as personal self-propelled vehicle. “Not really a gadget, but the best investment ever,” says Antoine. “I flew 40+ times this year and this invention was a lifesaver. I could go from the Gatwick Airport train platform to the boarding gates in less than 15 minutes!”

Brendan Gill, CEO and co-founder
FitBit Surge

Fitbit SurgeHow do you make a busy startup CEO to exercise? By quantifying that activity as data, of course. “I never originally thought I would care that much about my step count or heart rate, but being able to put a number to these things has kicked my competitive nature into gear,” Brendan says of his FitBit Surge. “Now I’m always trying to beat my record and get my heart rate down.”

 

Johanna Basnak, Research Analyst
Amazon Kindle

Jo Kindle

Jo’s choice is definitely one of the most common gadgets owned by people the world over, but there’s a reason why it’s so popular. The Kindle kicked off the e-book revolution “What can I say? I’m not a very techie person,” Jo says. “I do love having a Kindle though. I can carry a whole library with me wherever I go.”

James Robinson, CTO and co-founder
Narrative Clip 2

Our CTO is fond of a discreet but powerful camera called the Narrative Clip that you can attach to you shirt pocket or collar. James explains that he uses it as subtle digital journaling tool. He even used it to snap photos of guests arriving at his wedding. “It’s also perfect for occasions when you want to have photographs to aid your memory — concerts, galleries — but don’t want to spoil the moment by whipping out a phone,” James says. Below is a time-lapse video James shot of the sun rising over London.

Tristan Guigue, Software Engineer
LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

Who needs a countertop water filter tied to your kitchen when you can carry one at your side? “This is not very technological but it’s a really handy gadget for hikers, and a good way to save water,” Tristan says “You can drink from any water stream as long as it’s not too polluted to start with.” He doesn’t recommend, however, filling the LifeStraw from the Thames.

LifeStraw

Sam Westwood, COO and co-founder
Mechanical Apple Peeler

apple-peeler-corer-cOur third co-founder likes a perfectly peeled apple, but more importantly he likes the idea of a contraption that can produce a perfectly peeled Apple. “It’s completely mechanical, not very practical, but 100% beautiful,” says Sam.

 

Jaleh Afrooze, Operations Manager
Bose Headphones

London is a noisy place, but Jaleh manages to block out most of those distractions during her daily commute on the Underground with a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and a good audio book. “I love books but I’m often too tired to read or too active to sit down,” Jaleh says. “But I can listen to a book. These headphones are the best thing that I’ve bought to help me battle London’s busy streets.”

Jaleh Beats

Jasmin Schawalder, Marketing Director
Sonicare DiamondClean

Jasmin SonicareWhen you head up marketing at a startup it helps to have clean teeth. Jasmin says she wasn’t convinced that upgrading from her old Sonicare toothbrush to the new DiamondClean would produce any noticeable difference, but she was wrong. “The results a DiamondClean produces are a world apart of those of a traditional electric toothbrush.” Jasmin says. “It was like upgrading from an iPhone 4 to a 6S.”

Kevin Fitchard, Analyst
Range Ember

Kevin RangeI cook a lot so I own half a dozen different digital thermometers I can poke into roasts, stews and casseroles. Supermechanical’s Range thermometers do the same basic things that those other probes do, but it plugs directly into my iPhone where I can view my meal’s cooking progress from a beautifully and intuitively designed app. It’s not that the Range is any more useful than those other thermometers, but the experience is a lot more enjoyable.

Ellie Ereira, Biz Dev Manager
X-Ray Specs

Ellie won’t tell us where she got these glasses from or how they work, but we often see her sneaking around the office using these X-ray specs to spy on closed door meetings and read her co-workers’ unopened mail. “I find these particularly helpful when I’m trying to find something in the bottom of my handbag — I can find my keys, oyster card or phone almost instantly now, whereas usually it takes me a lot of fumbling around,” Ellie says. “They’re quite fun for pretending to be Superman every now and then, checking out what’s going on inside the buildings I’m walking along next to, though lead doors and frames obviously present some problems.”

ellie_w_xray_glasses_1024

FitBit Surge image courtesy of FitBit; LifeStraw image courtesy of eartheasy; Apple Peeler image courtesy of Williams-Sonoma. All other photos by OpenSignal staff.

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With Firefox OS dead, is there still hope for a Linux smartphone?

Someday a third mobile operating system may gain enough traction to challenge the Android and Apple’s dominance of the smartphone market, but it won’t be Firefox OS. At its developer conference on Wednesday, Mozilla revealed it was pulling the plug on its Linux-based mobile platform.

Mozilla SVP of Connected Devices Ari Jaaksi told TechCrunch that Firefox OS achieved its goal of a creating a flexible operating system focused solely on web apps for low-end smartphones, but it fell short on creating a good user experience. For that reason, Mozilla has stopped selling Firefox OS through mobile operators, he said, and it is halting all Firefox OS development.

Firefox OS certainly wasn’t the only effort to get a free Linux-based mobile OS off the ground, but as NetworkWorld’s Bryan Lunduke points out, many of those other Linux projects are also stumbling. Jolla, which is developing the Sailfish OS, is laying off staff. Ubuntu is shipping hardware in Europe, but it has yet to produce a device for North America, and Lunduke doesn’t hold out much hope that the Ubuntu Touch OS will find much of following when it does. Lunduke writes:

So here we are, watching 2015 slowly finish up, in a state where we actually have fewer Linux-powered smartphone prospects than we did when the year began. It seems like we’ve lost momentum in the race to get a high-quality, Linux-based mobile platform off the ground.

Everyone seems to like the idea of a free open-sourced mobile operating system, but for the concept to work consumers need a compelling reason to buy and use these Linux-powered devices. That’s proving increasingly tough as basic Android smartphones become cheaper and cheaper.

 

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Almost a New Year, almost new maps!

As many of you will know, a few months ago we ran a survey to determine the best new design for our coverage maps. We were looking to improve the colour scheme, the granularity, and the colour of areas where we have no data. We had a lot of great feedback – thanks! –  and putting it all together, we’ve come up with a brand new design. Now here’s your chance to comment on it. The new maps are in public beta for the next two weeks, and after your input we’ll decide if tweaks are needed and when to make these new maps official.

Button to access new mapsSo how do you find them? The new maps are accessible via the legend on the current coverage maps. The new maps are fully functional, just redesigned, versions of the current maps, so you can search for specific locations, compare networks, and view coverage specifically for 2G, 3G, or 4G service.

Also, the coverage maps have been updated with data contributed until the 1st of December, so if you’ve been contributing data recently you should see it on the map now (this will be live on the new maps tomorrow).

If you want to know more about the changes and the reasons for making them, please read the specific FAQ page for the new maps.

Finally, the most important part is your feedback – please let us know whether these maps are clearer, easier to use, and are just better on the whole than the old coverage maps. Or not, as the case may be. For starters, you can vote on which map you like better in our 10-second survey. You can leave comments below or in our Forum, or you can contact us directly and we’ll answer any questions that you have.

Thanks again for your help in choosing and evaluating our new maps! See them now!

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5 things to think about when picking your next mobile operator

Editor’s Note: Since publishing this article, we have created an infographic that summarizes these five tips in an easy-to-reference format. You can find the infographic here or at the end of this blog post.

Given what I do for a living, there is one question I get asked by a lot by friends, family and even casual acquaintances: what mobile operator should I pick? Invariably I wind up giving them a very long and ultimately disappointing answer. They want me to name one of the big four U.S. operators and be done with it, but what they get is me hemming and hawing about urban coverage versus rural, raw speed versus reliability and data buckets versus unlimited plans.

I’m not trying to be difficult, but the fact of the matter is there is no one operator or one service plan that is ideal for all people. Finding your operator match depends on a bevy of different considerations, from where you live and how you go about your day to how you typically use your phone. The operator with the highest national rankings in coverage and speed might have a huge dead zone smack in the middle of your neighborhood. That operator may be the best for most of the country, but it’s certainly not the best for you.

While I can’t tell you who’s the best, I can help you figure it out for yourself. The following is a list of five big considerations you should weigh when picking a service provider or plan no matter where you happen to live. They’re a little bit more nuanced than “who’s the fastest?” or “who’s the cheapest?” But most of what you need to know can be found in your own noggin. The rest you can look up using OpenSignal’s app and web tools.

The network you use is really quite small

Coverage seems like a no-brainer when picking an operator: The bigger the coverage map the more consistent and reliable your service will be. That’s true if you’re spending equal time in every part of your operators mobile footprint, but most of us aren’t roving news correspondents or traveling encyclopedia salesmen. Chances are there are only a handful of places where you do the majority of mobile calling and surfing – work, home, the commute in between and areas you spend your free time. The optimal network for you will be the network that provides a consistent signal in those locations.

Some operators specialize in metro coverage, so if you’re an urban dweller who rarely steps outside of the city limits, one of these operators might provide you the same or even better quality of service than an operator with a massive national footprint. There are also regional and rural operators – particularly in the U.S. – that do a much better job of covering their own little nooks of the country than even the farthest reaching nationwide provides. Conversely, there are operators that do a better job covering different parts of the urban landscape better than others, for instance public transit routes or train stations.

OpenSignal's coverage map of metropolitan Paris

OpenSignal’s coverage map of metropolitan Paris

The important thing about coverage isn’t the overall map, but the very specific map you use on a daily basis. If you happen to be a road warrior flitting between cities on a regular basis, then a nationwide operator with the biggest network footprint is ideal for you. But for everyone else, it makes sense to map the 10 or 20 places you spend the majority of your time, and see how the different operators in those areas stack up. Luckily OpenSignal has some tools to help. You can use OpenSignal’s app (available on Android and iOS) to map out each individual operator’s signal strength on different networks in a particular block or neighborhood. You can also interact with OpenSignal’s maps on the website.

3G is often as important as 4G

The operator with the fastest 4G service will deliver the best mobile data experience, right? Not necessarily. First of all think of the device you’re connecting here. Your smartphone isn’t your home network or a 4K smart TV. Once you get past 10 Mbps, chances are you aren’t going to notice any difference in performance except when dealing with the most bandwidth intensive of video streaming apps. If you’re picking between three or four providers all averaging 12 Mbps or better, then there are other things you should be weighing besides raw speed.

What’s most important is the reliability and consistency of your mobile broadband connection, and let’s face it, no operator can provide an LTE signal 100 percent of the time. Chances are you’re going to be spending a good deal of time surfing on your operator’s 3G or even 2G network, especially if you live in a country or area without decent 4G penetration. Looking at an operator’s data performance across all of its networks could give you a much better idea of what your mobile internet experience will be like day to day.

The problem is that cross-network average can be a bit hard to track down because it’s a statistic operators don’t often reveal. As OpenSignal publishes more regional reports (for instance our recent State of the Mobile Network: Brazil report), we’ve started tracking 3G speeds separately from 4G speeds. You can also use the advanced settings in the OpenSignal app to see the average performance of a particular operator across all of its networks or compare 3G versus 4G speeds in specific neighborhoods. In places like the U.S., GSM operators’ 3G networks are usually much faster than CDMA operators’ 3G counterparts, which can make up for spotty LTE coverage.

Data plan overkill

Ask yourself “Do I really need that 10 GB-per-month plan?” If you’re the typical smartphone user, the answer will almost always be no. According to Ericsson’s most recent Mobility Report, the average smartphone user in North America consumed 3.8 GBs per month in 2015. In Western Europe, the number was 2 GBs, and the average across the Asia Pacific region was even lower, 1 GB.

Operators will always try to sell their customers more data than they need, and most consumers usually overestimate the amount of data they will consume. The result is that a lot of data in these plans goes to waste each month. Before picking a new data plan, you should look back at a few of your old bills to see how much data you actually suck up each month. You might find that the operator with the cheapest big-bucket plan doesn’t offer the cheapest price for the particular way you use the mobile internet.

Plan prices aren’t the only things that matter though. It’s just as important to check how and how much your operator charges when you exceed your monthly maximum. Those overage fee structures vary considerably. One operator may just charge you a $1 for an additional increment of 100 MBs, while another will insist you buy a whole gigabyte for $20. Everybody exceeds their monthly data allotments on occasion, and that’s fine. Just make sure you’re not being gouged every time you do.

The right to roam free (or at least cheaply)

If you spend any amount of time outside of your home country’s borders, it’s worth checking on your perspective operator’s roaming policies. Using your smartphone for just a few days overseas can cost you the same as several months of service at home if you’re not careful. The EU has started cracking down on the worst roaming fee abuses within its borders, but it won’t be until 2017 that most roaming fees go away entirely. In the interim, though, many operators in Europe and further abroad have started singling themselves out with more reasonable programs.

For instance, I know several people in the U.K. that use 3 for the sole reason that it has eliminated roaming surcharges in 14 countries. In the U.S., T-Mobile offers a bare-bones data service and free texting to its customers roaming in most countries. Other U.S. operators have started eliminating or reducing fees for customers traveling in bordering Mexico and Canada.

Is there an MVNO for you? 

We’re in the golden age of the mobile virtual network operator: more than 1000 have popped up around the world, many of them offering prices far cheaper than their major operator counterparts. An MVNO is essentially a mobile operator that doesn’t own or run an actual network. Instead these virtual providers buy voice and data capacity from an established network operator.

In July I wrote a primer on this blog about the advantages and disadvantages of MVNOs, but in short, MVNOs differentiate themselves not just on price but in the way they package the voice and data we consume. For instance some MVNOs are focused on hard-core data users that rarely make phone calls. Others may offer inexpensive international calling features for expats. There are even some that try to improve upon the incumbent operators services by offering access to multiple networks or Wi-Fi hotspots, for instance Google’s new MVNO experiment Project Fi.

So once you’ve done your research and found the operator with the right network for you, you should check out that operators’ MVNOs. They might be able to offer you the same network but with a service plan that’s a much better fit for your specific mobile needs or budget.

5 Things to think about when choosing a mobile operator - infographic

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The smartphone boom may finally be subsiding

There will be only 1.43 billion shipments of new smartphones in 2015, according to research group IDC’s latest projections. That may sound like an awful lot, but as IDC points out, that number represents a 9.8 percent increase of smartphone shipments in 2014. If that prediction proves true then 2015 will be the first year on record where smartphone shipments didn’t grow by double-digit percentages, IDC says.

What does that mean exactly? The Wall Street Journal summed it up best. While it took less than a decade to get smartphones into the hands of 2 billion people, the Journal wrote, “getting phones in the next billion pairs of hands looks to be a tougher challenge.”

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Benin joins the 4G club

West Africa’s Benin has become the newest country to roll out 4G services. According to TeleGeography, Benin Telecoms has started selling LTE modem and smartphone plans in the capital Porto-Novo and four other cities and plans to extend service to a total of 20 cities and towns in the coming months.

OpenSignal is now tracking LTE networks in 140 countries, but more countries are coming online each quarter. The biggest gaps in the world’s LTE footprint remain in Africa, but as Benin is showing, African operators are filling in those holes.

The countries without commercial LTE services are shown in black and dark blue. Click on the image to see an interactive version of this map in our Q3 State of LTE report.

The countries without commercial LTE services are shown in black and dark blue. Click on the image to see an interactive version of this map in our Q3 State of LTE report.

The next country to enter the 4G era, though, will likely be in Eastern Europe. TeleGeography is tracking rumors that MTS Belarus will launch commercial 4G services in Minsk on December 19. Belarus’s LTE market is a bit unique. A single network operator, beCloud, is building a nationwide network that will be shared by the country’s three major consumer-facing mobile providers: MTS, Velcom and Turkcell-owned life:). As MTS launches, the other two are sure to follow.

As always, if you live in Benin or Belarus and plan to sign up for these new LTE services, we encourage you to download OpenSignal’s app (on Android and iOS) and join our crowdsourced testing community. Not only will the app give you insight on how these networks are performing where you live, but it will help us paint a bigger picture of these new networks as they mature.

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Orange gets into the electricity business in Africa

Orange already sells mobile service in countries across Africa, but now it plans to try its hand at selling another essential service to people on that continent: electricity. Orange has partnered with fellow French company Engie to build out power infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa and even jointly sell solar energy and small-scale electrical grid equipment directly to its mobile customers in rural areas.

The electricity business may seem an odd venture for one of the world’s biggest multinational operators, but it has every interest in ensuring Africa has access to reliable power. After all, its customers can’t make phone calls if their phones’ batteries are dead. Orange and Engie estimated that 90 percent of the rural population of sub-Sahara Africa had no access to the electricity grid, so there certainly isn’t lack of potential customers. And Orange already has the billing infrastructure in place. It plans to use its mobile cash transaction service, Orange Money, for payments.

Orange at AfricaCom in Cape Town (image credit: Orange)

Orange at AfricaCom in Cape Town (image credit: Orange)

But Orange sees another benefit to its Engie partnership as well. Engie aims to become a major player in Africa’s energy infrastructure development, and Orange hopes to tap that grid for its own network use. Just as its customers can’t make calls with charged batteries, its cell towers can’t connect those phones without a consistent power source.

And just as Engie sees Africa as a big opportunity for energy development, Orange sees its vast potential as a telecom market. AfricaCom took place in Cape Town last month, a big event highlighting Africa’s big ambitions to become a mobile telecommunications hotbed rivaling Europe.

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Ofcom issues its 2015 report card on the U.K. mobile market

Telecom regulator Ofcom this week released its Connected Nations report for 2015, and it’s brimming with data about the U.K.’s broadband and mobile providers. Of particular note is the reports’ findings on 4G coverage, which increased dramatically among since 2014.

Through analysis of the operators’ own data, Ofcom reports that EE has outdoor 4G coverage of 85 percent of U.K. premises, while O2 and Vodafone hit the 75 percent and 73 percent marks respectively. Three, which tends to focus on urban areas, lagged the rest with only 51 percent outdoor coverage.

Those numbers, however, are very different from the coverage numbers OpenSignal tabulated for the U.K. in our Q3 global LTE report. Our report shows no U.K. operator with more than 59 percent coverage. That’s not to say Ofcom’s numbers are wrong (or ours are wrong, for that matter). It just shows that we’re measuring different things.

Ofcom measured some big improvements in outdoor LTE coverage between 2014 and 2015 (Graphic credit: Ofcom)

Ofcom measured some big improvements in outdoor LTE coverage between 2014 and 2015 (Graphic credit: Ofcom)

While Ofcom is tracking the percentage of the U.K. population contained within the coverage footprints of these four operators, OpenSignal’s time-coverage metric tracks what percentage of time a 4G smartphone user spends connected to an LTE network. Just because your operator has 75 percent population coverage, it doesn’t mean you’ll spend 75 percent of your time connected to 4G network. You travel in and out of coverage zones, indoors and out, and even within coverage zones you can encounter dead spots and congestion that can knock you off the network. Instead of geographic coverage, we’re trying to track overall network reliability.

If you drill deeper into Ofcom’s numbers you’ll begin seeing some of these coverage nuances. For instance, Ofcom found that 56 percent of the total geographic area of the U.K. and 47 percent of all major roads (A and B roads) are not covered by any of the four major 4G networks. There are still some sizable holes in the U.K. 4G grid, but there is one big positive to draw from both Ofcom and OpenSignal’s data: those holes are shrinking.

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Results are in! Summer / Fall Translation Challenge

Hello OpenSignallers!

Many of you have probably noticed that the OpenSignal app family (OpenSignal, WifiMapper, and WeatherSignal) comes in your language. This is all thanks to our fantastic translation community that have, since we started our localisation efforts, translated and contributed over 188,374 words! We’re so grateful that you are taking part, because by taking part in our crowdsourced translation effort, you are helping to keep our app translations up to date, accurate, and in many more languages than we could have done ourselves.

You might also have heard about our iPad translation challenges, during which you can get a ticket in our iPad lottery for every 500 words that you translate. On November 1st, we completed the Summer & Fall iPad Translation Challenge, where the theme was to translate our iOS apps, with an overall challenge goal of 64,793. In four months, the amazing OpenSignal translation community translated ……

49,294 words!

Of this goal, iOS translations are nearly a third – this is fantastic!

Now, as is customary, we announce the winner of the iPad Mini! Thank you and congratulations to ….. (drumroll, please) …..

Khadis, from Indonesia

About Khadis:
“I have been freelancing as a freelance translator since 2006 and I
have done many paid and volunteer projects, both local and
international. I am now working as a freelance translator for several
translation agencies in Asia, Europe, and America. Besides that, I am
a blogger too, and I was also a magazine and newspaper contributor.”

In honour of Khadis and his contribution of a Bahasa Indonesian translation, here is a map of the Austronesian language family, of which Bahasa Indonesian is a part.

Austronesian Language Family

We also would like to thank the other contributors who helped translate during this translation challenge!

Dmitry Gaich
Russian
Marco Gardellini
Italian
Arno Goyvaerts
Dutch
Thomas Lautenschlager
German
Francisco Palaio
Portuguese
Maikel Simões
Brazilian Portuguese
Giuliano Zamboni
Italian

(Some translators chose to remain anonymous)

Thank you again, and stay tuned for the next translation challenge! If you want to learn more about our translation process, you can find the details here: https://opensignal.com/blog/2014/11/14/translate-for-a-t-shirt/.

*Photo Credit: CulturalSurvival.org 

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