FrontlineSMS has so far managed to achieve quite a lot with really very little, but that's about to change. After two-and-a-half years of promise, it's finally beginning to look like the software I dreamt of that wet Saturday evening in Cambridge back in early 2005. I've spent the past week putting six months of development through its paces, whilst writing the new User Guide, and am as excited as ever about what this thing can do. One of the most exciting new features are things we've called "FrontlineSMS actions". Here's what they do.
"FrontlineSMS actions" are triggered by keywords which arrive via incoming text messages from patients, farmers, staff, fieldworkers, members of the public or whoever. Once a keyword or phrase is detected, FrontlineSMS can be told to do one of a number of things. These are our "actions":
FrontlineSMS will automatically send a pre-determined SMS back to the sender of the message (maybe a "Thank you for your message", for example, or clinic opening times, or the current price of matoke)
FrontlineSMS will automatically forward the incoming message to all members of a pre-determined Group. This can be useful for users who want Group members to be able to contact each other via SMS with latest news, or with urgent announcements (Auto Forward does a similar thing to Twitter)
FrontlineSMS will automatically add the sender of the SMS to a pre-determined Group. Again, this is useful for users running a series of user Groups or clubs, and who want people to be able to join automatically by publicising the keyword without them having to make direct contact. A campaign, for example, could say "To join our Control Arms Campaign, text in the word JOIN to 123456789"
Members of Groups can leave any time they like by sending an SMS with a pre-determined keyword or phrase (for example, LEAVE GROUP)
Allows the running of competitions, Surveys or the soliciting of opinions from people. Any time a message comes in which starts with the pre-determined Survey keyword, FrontlineSMS will keep track of it and allow all responses to be analysed in the SurveyAnalyst module. Surveys or competitions could ask people, for example, to text in the word OPINION followed by their opinion on a certain topic or subject
Keywords can be used to instruct FrontlineSMS to automatically forward an incoming text message to a pre-determined recipient, by email. This might be useful if a Project Manager, or someone in a different country or office, needs to receive emailed details of incoming Survey or campaign text messages, or if users want their messages to be backed up in an email system such as Outlook or Google Mail, or held somewhere for wider forwarding
To provide maximum functionality, keywords can be set up to trigger the running of external commands or programs on the computer (for example, a batch file or a script). Advanced users could write a batch file which finds out how much free disk space is left on the computer, for example. An incoming SMS with, say, the keywords FREE SPACE could then be set to trigger the running of this batch file, with FrontlineSMS texting the result (i.e. the amount of free disk space) back to the message sender. The External Command function can also be used to instruct FrontlineSMS to send incoming messages to remote servers over the internet, which may be useful as a method of backing up data, or for a website with a news ticker which needs to display all incoming messages for a campaign or event
As I speak - or should that be write? - FrontlineSMS is being tested by around twenty-five NGOs. Over seventy requests to use the new version have been submitted via the website in the past three weeks. Right now we're just ironing out the last few kinks before we make it more widely available to the NGO community. These are exciting times, and going by the feedback we're receiving, we're not the only ones getting excited...