About a year ago I was asked to give an interview to the Africa Journal. They were looking at ICT innovators and entrepreneurs in Africa and I agreed, despite being mildly uncomfortable being labelled an ICT innovator or an entrepreneur (and an African one, at that). At the end of the interview, however, they captured a brief moment which beautifully encapsulated what FrontlineSMS is all about. The interview ended:
FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity
FrontlineSMS has always been about empowerment. It's never been about telling people how to use mobile phones to monitor elections, to increase market transparency, or help raise awareness around HIV/AIDS issues, even though it's been used for these things and many more. At the end of the day, it's a tool which allows organisations to figure out how to do these things for themselves. Combine that with a connected community and you have the makings of something quite powerful.
The decision to build a platform - and not a specific solution to a specific problem - has turned out to be one of the key strengths of the software. The new functionality we've added to the latest version takes this one step further allowing, for example, St. Gabriel's hospital in Malawi to figure out how to do automatic remote top-ups of their health workers' phones, or CP-Union in the Philippines to share incoming SMS data - human rights reporting in this case - with their own K-Rights Monitoring software. When users start adding contacts, keywords and actions in FrontlineSMS, or integrating it into existing systems, they're essentially creating something new, something from scratch, a communications environment all of their own making.
In ideal circumstances platforms become something of a blank canvas, and the brushstrokes the user-generated 'content' (actionable ideas, in this case). Not only does this encourage a culture of do-it-yourself thinking, it also creates instant engagement and ownership. Combine these with the local knowledge and level of engagement many NGOs already have with their stakeholders, and you're half-way to a positive outcome. Approaches which allow initiatives to grow from the ground up, focussing on technology as the enabler (not the owner) generally have the greatest chance of success. The uses of FrontlineSMS, for example, are bewildering, and they're growing all the time. Few, if any, were anticipated. Lower the barriers to entry and all sorts of things can happen, it seems.
Local ownership, the use of appropriate technology, ease-of-use, high replicability and accessibility, and a low barrier to entry should be among the key ingredients of any grassroots-focussed social mobile tool. If we're to make real, tangible progress then the tools we create don't only need to set out to empower, they need to empower. In other words, they need to do exactly what they say on the tin.