Lessons Learned from the FrontlineSMS Community
As anyone who has experienced it will tell you, working at FrontlineSMS is no ordinary job. The ethos and values of the organisation produce a unique work atmosphere, and the many talented and enthusiastic people involved make it an inspiring place to be. I feel very lucky to have been Community Support Coordinator here for the last year and a half. The team asked me if I would like to write something for this blog, for which I’ve written so often, to reflect on what I have learned during my time working with FrontlineSMS.
The many uses of SMS
My role involved managing an increasingly active user community and helping to represent the many ways FrontlineSMS software is being used across the world. By documenting these user cases I have got to know many of the wonderful organisations and individuals in the FrontlineSMS user community. I have been continually struck by how many organisations out there are making a constructive impact despite their limited resources. Knowing that FrontlineSMS helps is incredibly rewarding – supporting election monitoring in Nigeria, providing maternal healthcare information in the Philippines, or sounding the alarm against harassment on the streets of Egypt, real-world demonstrations of the software’s impact are powerful. All this is being made possible by effective management of text message communication through FrontlineSMS.
Technology is only part of the story
Simple in concept yet brilliant in its design and application; FrontlineSMS provides a software that allows users to take advantage of SMS, the world’s most widespread digital platform, to manage communications in diverse – often low infrastructure – environments. Yet, as I quickly discovered, the technology is only a part of a successful implementation. Through working on a range of program-related user resources – such as case studies and an SMS campaigning guide – I learned that program design considerations are central to effectively using communications tools for social change. When planning to use a tool such as FrontlineSMS there is a vital need to consider critical delivery planning – outreach, messaging, integration, translation, verification and impact monitoring – in order to run a successful program. In addition, it is also essential to ensure sensitivity to behavioral and cultural factors in any given context in which a program is run; as we often put it in the FrontlineSMS office, ‘context is king’.
Grass roots change, globally
Many social change organisations are using FrontlineSMS to improve their communications at the grass roots and – as a result – increase the impact of their work. Being able to measure this impact is central to demonstrating the power of the software. An aspect of FrontlineSMS’s work which is simultaneously a strength and a challenge is our lack of ownership over implementations: making the software available as a free and open source download has undoubtedly contributed to FrontlineSMS’s wide usage, yet those who download the software have no obligation to let the FrontlineSMS team know how – even whether – they are using it.
We have tackled this challenge in a number of ways: conducting user surveys and download data analysis, researching in-depth case studies, and, most recently, launching a new monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework. It was through this kind of analysis and observation of our users that the FrontlineSMS team came to a new perception of the software’s impact.
Although there are undoubtedly large scale implementations of FrontlineSMS, my work has focussed on supporting the many users who are successfully running programs at the community level; really getting to know their target beneficiary audience and effectively measuring and adapting their work over time. FrontlineSMS scales horizontally rather than vertically – rather than a few massive implementations, we see thousands of users working at the community level all across the world, having enormous collective impact.
The user still comes first
One of the most amazing things for me to experience during my time at FrontlineSMS is getting to know many passionate people who are prepared to give their time and energy to help others; this includes the amazing team, the strong user community, and the many FrontlineSMS Heroes who have given their time to help keep things running successfully. It has been a joy to work alongside such a dedicated bunch of people!
I have been particularly impressed by how FrontlineSMS users are willing to help support each other. Through the user community forum and the growing global trend of user meet-ups, there is a clear desire amongst users to see others succeed; to share lessons learned and build valuable connections with others seeking to use FrontlineSMS for positive social change.
I am going to miss a lot of things about working at FrontlineSMS, especially the people. I feel privileged to have been able to work with the community, and observed the amazing work so many people are doing in the mobile for social change space. Moving forward, there is a wonderful new Community Support Manager, Sila Kisoso, taking over from me. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Sila in the FrontlineSMS Nairobi office, and I know she will do an excellent job with supporting the FrontlineSMS community. I am moving on to study for my Masters in Anthropology and Development at Leiden University in the Netherlands, but I will be sure to stay in touch with the FrontlineSMS team and continue to support the community in any way I can. I would like to thank the FrontlineSMS team, all FrontlineSMS Heroes and the user community for helping make my time working with FrontlineSMS so special!
To stay in touch with Flo you can find her on Twitter via @Flo_Sci. Watch this space for more from our new Community Support Manager, Sila, coming soon! \o/