As the latest iteration of FrontlineSMS celebrates its first birthday, now is as good-a-time as any to sit back with a double latte and reflect on the successes - and challenges - of the past twelve months Happy birthday to o/
Exactly one year ago today - 25th June, 2008 - saw the release of the revised version of FrontlineSMS. Originally written in 2005 over a five week summer break in Finland, the MacArthur Foundation stepped in a couple of years later to fund the development of an improved, Java-based multi-platform version following its successful deployment in the Nigerian Presidential elections, an event which turned out to be pivotal in the short history of the software.
Since then there have been numerous interim releases thanks to follow-on funding from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Hewlett Foundation, funding which has allowed us the luxury of pushing out new and improved features to users. In three months time we'll see the release of a significant upgrade with a range of new features - including picture messaging - which promises to open up the platform yet further.
Suffice to say it’s been an exciting if hectic past twelve months. From a standing start last summer almost 2,600 NGOs have - one way or another - got to hear about the software and downloaded it. The online community is picking up steam and currently stands at just shy of 600 members. We’re about to launch another community, this time aimed at developers, although thankfully we won’t be starting from scratch on this one. Numerous programmers, projects and organisations have already begun working with the code, and others have used it to build diverse applications including human rights- and agriculture-based SMS solutions. We’re very excited where this could be headed, but hold no illusions that an active, engaged developer community is essential if FrontlineSMS is to ever become sustainable, developmentally at least.
Over the past twelve months the software has also been profiled in the international media and presented at dozens of ICT4D and non-ICT4D conferences around the world. Thanks to the efforts of the FrontlineSMS:Medic team it also made it onto the CNN and Discovery Channel websites (a selection of videos are available via the community site). Recent efforts by the University of Canberra have also attracted the attention of Brad Pit and Angelina Jolie.
In addition, volunteers have helped translate the software into over half-a-dozen languages, numerous non-profit organisations have held FrontlineSMS training sessions for their staff, and Plan International went a step further and made their own introductory videos to distribute to Plan field offices via DVD. The software has a growing following on Facebook and Twitter, and continues to get good traction in wider non-profit circles. Many people are beginning to hear about FrontlineSMS through their own networks, and that’s a simple yet significant first step for many NGOs looking to deploy SMS services in their social change work.
But the past year - and the three before that, if we’re to be honest - have presented their fair share of challenges. When FrontlineSMS was originally conceived in 2005 it was highly experimental. Every step since has presented its own mini mountain to climb.
#1 Applications development and deployment
We’ve certainly learnt a lot on the development side of things - everything from the technical, geographical and financial challenges of creating mobile tools for use in resource-constrained environments, through to ways of encouraging adoption among the hard-to-reach grassroots NGO community. Best practice - such as understanding the fundamentals of the problem at the very beginning, researching existing solutions, rapid prototyping, choosing appropriate platforms and leveraging existing structures, are among a number of important key steps we’ve learnt along the way.
#2 Dismissing myths
By far the best way to fully understand the geographical, cultural and technical challenges of building mobile tools is to go out and build tools. It’s also imperative to spend a little time with the people or organisations you’re trying to help, ideally before you start designing anything. Neither of these are easy, mind you - time and cost are two factors - but you’ll gain far greater insight than you could ever do basing your project entirely on what other people say. Misconceptions and hype can be dangerous distractions and blind alleys, particularly if you base some of the fundamentals of your project on them. Scaling, “big is beautiful”, centralised versus distributed and “collaboration at all costs” are just a few. Proceed with caution.
Although things are much better than they were with the 2005 release (which only supported half-a-dozen devices), today we face the challenges created by a hugely fragmented handset market which innovates and releases new models at a remarkable rate.
We could, of course, make things easy for ourselves and insist users get hold of a GSM modem, but the whole point of FrontlineSMS is to try and lower the barrier to entry, and only supporting modems (and not the devices most readily available to NGOs - mobile phones) would be entirely counter-productive. Over the coming weeks we hope to gain access to test facilities which will allow us to test the software on a wider range of more recently-released phones, but keeping up with the industry will be an ongoing challenge.
#4 Device configuration
Getting their phone connected and working remains one of the bigger challenges for end users. We've made things as easy as possible with built-in automatic detection and configuration, but this can be totally thrown by cheap or fake/imitation cables, handsets not put into the right 'mode', incorrect or corrupt software drivers, software running on the computer 'locking' the phone and not allowing FrontlineSMS access, or by the phone communicating using different 'non-standard' protocols. Again, this is a problem which won't go away, but one we're going to have to do our best with.
Finally, how do you promote a grassroots messaging tool to grassroots NGOs who by their very nature are largely 'offline'? It may have taken four years, but FrontlineSMS is today relatively well known among our target communities, and much of the adoption is driven organically, i.e. by one NGO talking about it with another. We're very happy with our 2,600 NGOs in the past year, but we should be reaching out to many more. Getting it up to nearer 5,000 over the next twelve months is the target we've set ourselves.
FrontlineSMS is run by the smallest of teams - one project manager and two part-time software developers. As the software begins to get serious traction in a number of target areas, we need to plan very carefully to ensure that we don't miss out on key opportunities, that we keep up with the users' needs, that we remain responsive, and that we don't become too overstretched. Some of the signs tell us that perhaps we already are.
#7 Evaluation and impact
A number of researchers and larger international NGOs are beginning to take an interest in helping us assess the impact of FrontlineSMS among the user base. There is still much we don't really know - how many downloads lead to regular use (and how many don't), what barriers stop people using it, what impact the software has on the work of the NGO, and the benefits it brings to the communities they serve. These are all critical questions.
As we enter the second year, we're just about ready to start making sense of the map and what it represents. And that means our successes, our failures, and where we go from here.