A Day Well Spent at FrontlineSMS
Christine Mwangi, Community Project Assistant Intern.
I recently joined FrontlineSMS on an internship, as Community Project Assistant. I’m a recent graduate in Computer Science, so I’m very passionate about technology and the great impact it has on social change. I am working closely with Sila Kisoso, the community support manager to support user engagement. This internship with FrontlineSMS is a great opportunity for me to learn more about user experience, a key consideration when building an application.
Given the incredible growth in mobile usage in the last decade, it comes as no surprise that many organisations are embracing the use of mobile technology to expand their reach and engage with communities. This has come with its fair share of challenges, given some of the limitations of technology such as poor mobile connectivity in some areas, SMS has become the more reliable and inexpensive option. FrontlineSMS supports the utility of text messaging as a communications platform, and we hold workshops from time to time to educate our users on how to maximize the use of FrontlineSMS as an SMS platform. As an intern, I was excited to be part of one such workshop, the Community Engagement with SMS Workshop, held this past January. The workshop got off to a great start, with Laura Walker Hudson, CEO of our Foundation, starting us off with group introductions and also requested participants to share their expectations of the workshop. It was clear within the next few minutes how eager everyone was to make the day a great learning experience.
The sessions were interactive, actively engaging those in attendance, something I found truly enjoyable. Laura tackled questions from the participants, using previous case studies detailing how various organisations are using the software to engage the communities they work with. We had a great turnout of participants from a range of international organizations such as World Vision International, Danish Demining Group among others.
There was also a one-on-one session explaining how to set-up FrontlineSMS; we learnt how to troubleshoot mobile connection (a popular FAQ among our users) with FrontlineSMS using a modem. We launched v2.2 that morning and our participants had the opportunity to test it first-hand. Laura explained some of the new features that had been introduced to the new release, 2.2.0 which included Subscriptions, which enables users to enable people to sign up for messages that interest them. For example, someone could join a group for farmers by sending in a keyword; all the updates sent to the farmers group would then go to them. You can even auto-reply to confirm your subscription. Web connection is another great activity which allows one to send SMS up to a web server or service such as Ushahidi or even Twitter. Other new improvements in the software include Basic Authentication, where a user can be able to set up a password for their platform across the network so at improve on security.
Towards the end of the programme, we went into groups of four where each group was expected to come up with a communication strategy illustrating how the software may be deployed, taking security, sustainability, accountability, and monitoring and evaluation into consideration. The winning team project was proposing to use FrontlineSMS to report sensitive cases of sexual abuse in the community. They effectively outlined how the software can help reduce the occurrence of these incidences by providing a platform where one can report without fear of prejudice or stigma. The group clearly explained how they would deal with data security issues were clearly outlined in this project, which was an important factor to consider. Each of the members of the winning team was honoured with a FrontlineSMS badge as a token of appreciation for their efforts in simulating that project.
The sessions were well paced and time allocated for each item on the agenda was adequate; though there was so much discussion and people were so interested that we think the next training is going to have to be two days so as to cover the functionality of the software more exhaustively as well as give more time for Q&A.
All in all, it was a day well spent.
Kenya: From the ‘phone booth’ to widespread mobile adoption in Silicon Savannah
I had my first mobile phone in 1999, a metallic blue Motorola M3888. Its street name was “phone booth” because it was the cheapest mobile phone available, even though it was a luxury. It cost 14,000KES ($160) – a gift from my father bought during a Safaricom Valentine’s Day special. I could make calls – for 40KES (50 cents) per minute, and send SMS, and that was it; I loved that phone!
Today, you can buy a phone for as little as 1,000KES ($12) and make a call for 1KES ($0.01) per minute. 14,000KES will get you two Android phones – which, like many handsets, enable you to do far more than just send and receive SMS and make calls.
In 1999, few realised how significant mobile software development would be to the Kenyan economy; as an income driver, employment option, and as part of our financial infrastructure. Kenya now has 26 million mobile subscribers. According to the GSMA – the global trade body for mobile network operators – the number of African mobile phone users has grown by nearly 20% every year since 2007; and Kenya is at the heart of this technology boom. It is home to M-Pesa; a well-known innovation that has defied the old order and created a ripple effect and a new wave of innovation in financial services. Today, 50% of Kenya’s GDP moves through mobile money, and M-Pesa reportedly handles $20 million a day in mobile money transactions.
Nicknamed ‘Silicon Savannah’, Kenya’s IT initiatives have already propelled the country to the forefront of the industry in Africa. In 2007, Kenya set its Vision 2030, incorporating IT development as a pillar of its economic growth. While in some parts of the world the emphasis has been on equipping mobile phones with everything you might find on your computer, in Kenya the focus has been on developing new technology that can enhance everyday living. Whether it is moving money without a bank account, reporting incidences of corruption or sharing health education to new mothers; this innovation is being made possible using even the most basic mobile phone on the market. A thriving industry has grown up here, and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, around the development and sale of mobile apps which allow you to do everything from finding a hair salon to chatting with friends to taking a photo and sharing it via email or social media – critically, most for the feature phone market.
In 2011, it was reported that Africa had 500 million mobile phones; 485 million of which were non-smartphones. There is a great demand in Africa for tools and apps for the non-smartphone user. This population live, on average, in areas that lack mobile (internet) connectivity or have access to mobile connectivity but can’t afford it. SMS remains a powerful platform in these communities. In the coming years we’ll see the development of cheaper, more robust smartphones; hopefully reduced pricing for mobile data; and as a consequent rise in the uptake of high-end mobile communications. For rural and low-income populations, however, SMS will continue to be a critical platform. I’m excited to work with our users to support them engage communities, manage staff and gather and visualize information in increasingly sophisticated ways, through FrontlineSMS. \o/
Kenya is the heart of technology in Africa and where FrontlineSMS strategically set up its offices in Nairobi. Being new to Mobile for Development (M4D), myself, I am fortunate to join one of the best teams in mobile software engineering whose core mission is to lower the barrier to communication while serving a wide base of users, reaching over 40,000 users in 135 countries. I joined the team mid-last year as the Community Support Manager in our Nairobi Office, where our in-house software developer team is based. We are housed close to the iHub, alongside other similar organizations such as Ushahidi, Kopo Kopo, Praekelt Foundation and M-Farm among others.
In the last eight months I’ve learned a lot about ICT4D, as a newcomer to the field – from colleagues, of course, but most of all from our users. Our users have taught me how essential SMS is and how versatile FrontlineSMS is through the innovative ways they have adopted it in their work.
We are always interested to share your stories and photos. If you would like to share your use of FrontlineSMS, in the form of a blog post or case study, and have it featured on our website, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have already seen great value in sharing user experiences empowering other users to see the potential of SMS in their work.
Read the guest blogs we have posted by clicking here. We would also love to receive photos of your team using FrontlineSMS in the office or better yet, in the field. We are also currently collecting photos of our users in celebration of FrontlineSMSat7 sharing their message to the world on how they are using FrontlineSMS. Join in and share yours to email@example.com! We will post it on facebook and even tweet about your work!
Share your user story and empower others in the process \o/. I look forward to hearing from you!
How radio can be a conversation (not a lecture) and a jukebox (not a playlist)
Airtime is an awesome piece of software, built by Sourcefabric, which lets radio stations take control of programming via the web. It includes a simple scheduling calendar, smart playlists and automated playout. To mark World Radio Day 2013, FrontlineSMS:Radio‘s Amy O’Donnell wrote a post for Sourcefabric’s blog on how this scheduling tool can be complemented by channels including SMS to help to make radio interactive. A snippet of the post is republished below, or you can read the original post in full here.
The occasion of UNESCO’s second World Radio Day (February 13, 2013) encourages us to reflect on radio as a medium which is celebrated for reaching the widest audience worldwide and is often a primary source of information, even for the most marginalised communities. Radio is a powerful low-cost, accessible medium which brings groups together who are united by song tastes, interest in certain issues or simply by virtue of their location. Whatever reason people have for tuning in, the radio community are recognising that radio is changing in nature and the medium no longer serves as just a one way broadcast. Instead, radio is an interactive platform for audiences to share ideas.
Working with both the Airtime and FrontlineSMS communities in the radio space, I’ve seen the number of channels through which thus type of interaction happens. Both of these tools are widening the spectrum of options available to presenters to make radio the truly interactive, multi-platform conversation that it can be. In my work with FrontlineSMS – a platform which supports sophisticated applications of text messaging, I am witnessing how radio stations are exploring innovative ways to allow audiences to drive content. Using a spectrum of different options for audience engagement, including harnessing mobile technology, many stations are working to ensure that radio is not a lecture, but a conversation; not a set playlist, but a jukebox.
Airtime and FrontlineSMS share more than a user-friendly interface. Both are free and open source (essentially anyone can access and tinker with/modify our code). This underlies our commitment to collaborative and creative thinking which we’re keen to explore. Speaking with the folks at Sourcefabric, I know many Airtime users are exploring interactive options to allow listeners to engage via communications platforms with which they are already familiar. Some of the questions which intrigue me include: how do presenters make radio programming interactive and responsive? What communications channels do audiences use which radio stations could harness to reach them in ways otherwise unexplored? What technology or toolsets do radio stations use which have complementary functions? Who really controls the content? As I see it, when it comes to the tools radio stations use to manage both content scheduling and audience interaction, the next step we should be considering is how to make sure these tools are as multi-platform as the conversations happening around them.
To read the post in full click here
• The Airtime Community and Sourcefabric are celebrating World Radio Day on February 13, 2013. Find out more details about their events on their Facebook page.
Our brand of ‘agile’
We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you a rare insight into operations at our secret developer base, deep in the bowels of a nondescript office building in Nairobi, Kenya. Warning: this post may be techier than usual, but we hope still intelligible to our readers…
“Our dev team does SCRUM, with user-centric, test-driven development”. We’re proud of that statement, but also very aware of how unsubstantiated that claim can sound. We’ve all heard the stories of the tech companies with 6-month-long ‘iterations’ and 3000-page specification documents that nonetheless brand themselves Agile. These horror stories could push some to follow their agile approach of choice to the letter, for fear of being swept downstream into the dreaded waterfall, but at FrontlineSMS we feel we’ve adapted much of the industry’s best practices and most trusted tools to create a process that gives us confidence in our code, and the ability to create an ever-improving product for our users.
Building robust, reusable code as a team, in a predictable amount of time and to a dynamic and user-reactive roadmap is no trivial task. Our dev team is all located in our Nairobi office, which helps. As useful as distributed source control and cloud-based progress tracking are, there’s indisputable value in sitting next to the people you are collaborating with, asking when you’re stuck, and showing off your latest one-line gem of code. We make full use of this advantage by frequently pair programming, designing mockups on the whiteboard in the office and interrupting each other with our little technical challenges all the time, as well as more formal approaches like our daily standup meetings and face-to-face iteration planning meetings.
Any agile software development proponent would feel at home at the standup meetings. Referring to our task board, each team member updates the others on what they did the day before, and their plans for the day ahead. We update our burn-down chart to see if we’re on track to complete the work scheduled for the iteration, then after a quick coffee run, we get started on the coding tasks for the day.
This attitude is extended to our processes as well – we have tried, tested and documented approaches to coding, testing, building and releasing, but never hesitate to revise our approach. The columns on our task board reflect whatever we currently feel is the most productive way to classify each new piece of functionality’s journey from idea to release, but even they change from time to time as we iteratively improve our approach to work. You could say we’re agile about being agile.
Then there’s the tools – automation is almost an addiction. From little bash scripts to one-click building and uploading of new releases, we generally aim to automate anything we can envision ourselves doing more than once. Our Jenkins continuous integration server jobs are configured to run all our tests multiple times a day, and no feature gets merged into the main development branch until Jenkins gives the green light. We’ve got an awesome dev team dashboard that gently prods you if you forget to merge and delete a completed story’s git branch, or disable the dedicated Jenkins test job. Even when the dev team might be found upstairs at the iHub, procuring a Pete’s Coffee or sharpening our foosball skills, Batman, our in-house build server, is slaving away in the corner running functional tests to ensure everything works just right. Any ideas about how to make life easier for the devs is immediately thrown into JIRA (the task management platform we use) along with the tasks for the current iteration, because we believe in improving our processes as much as we believe in improving our product.
This evolving, iterative approach is part of what makes it great being a developer at FrontlineSMS. Skeptics may doubt our standup meeting ritual, and purists may scowl at our online task board, but we are proud of our approach and think it’s the best possible way to get the most out of our team, and put the best possible product behind those download links. And when we no longer think it’s the best approach, we’ll change it again.
The Data Divide
Do you remember when grocery stores didn’t know you were pregnant before your parents? Or when newspapers couldn’t find naked pictures of you by looking through your phone? Boy, those were the days (When did I get this old?).
Still, there’s no escaping it. Things are digitizing. Everywhere. Whether you’re registering to vote in Washington State using Facebook or banking on your mobile phone in Kenya, there are, all of a sudden, a bunch of third-party organizations involved in the most intimate parts of your life that weren’t there before. And, for the most part, that’s a good thing. Services are delivered more quickly, collective action is easier to organize, and you can do, well, almost everything, better.
So what’s the catch? There’s a great saying: “If you are not paying for it, you are not the customer; you are the product being sold.” That’s never been more true than it is right now- the digitization of interactions means that every time we carry a smart phone, send a text message, or buy something online, we’re creating value for someone. A lot of it, as it turns out. These days, information isn’t just power, it’s big money.
Telecommunications and online services companies are posting some of the world’s largest profits by doing two, transformational things: collecting huge amounts of data, and using it to increase profit margins. Everyone, from Google to governments, is realizing the value of well-defined, correlated, and usable information. This is where online service providers have made so much progress- in collecting data on nearly everything they touch and a number of things they probably shouldn’t. More importantly, though, these organizations have developed algorithms and refining processes yield clear insights from otherwise unmanageably large data sets, enabling them to drive value from us. And all of their interactions with us.
As it stands, we have all given up any ownership interest we may have in that value, even though our interactions are the ones creating it. For the most part, the decisions about the morality of data capture, ownership, and licensing practices have been buried in the corners of unread terms of service agreements. Service providers have been free to set, and more concerning, unilaterally change, the agreements that determine how billions of people’s most personal information is treated. And while there have been some early challenges (like the outcry over Instagram recently), most web platforms do so with impunity. The legal community hasn’t been particularly quick, or consistent, in recognizing the increasingly vital role played by telecommunications technologies and the digital data they create.
Over the years, there has been a lot of conversation about the Digital Divide- the ways that comparatively sophisticated digital communication technologies increase disparities in wealth and access to services. But as governments, businesses, and vital service providers move their interactions to digital platforms like the Internet, mobile and browser applications, and SMS, they’re also creating another kind of divide: a Data Divide.
Here, I mean the Data Divide as the marginalization of individual interests in the collection, analysis, use, and commercialization of data generated through digital interactions to the disproportionate benefit of institutions and service providers. Said more simply, big companies and governments exercise an enormous amount of power over us based on the data that we give them- often unknowingly or without choice.
The strongest advocates for us, the individuals, have come from the online security and privacy communities. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the World Wide Web Consortium, have been advocates for creating “Do Not Track” policies and tools, toward helping people gain control over the data that the world’s largest online platforms collect. These tools and policies, though, have faced a tough road toward achieving their goals and there’s significantly further to go.
Still, “Do Not Track,” only really creates the option to prevent the collection of personal and online interaction data- which is different than being able to download and commercialize it yourself. In other words, the options are, either let big companies collect data on you, or no one can do it at all.
I can’t help feeling like that still misses the point, like it’s a bit scorched Earth. What if there was a middle ground? What if you could share in the value that you create, simply by doing whatever it is you already do on these platforms?
The simple point is that technology tools and services continue to base their billion-dollar businesses on our data. That’s not to say they shouldn’t have the right to do so- they provide valuable services that many of us enjoy for free. That said, as the amount of digital data that we create and volunteer about ourselves continues to grow in volume, value, and impact, so, too, does the importance of fair, participatory, and open conversations about how that value is used and spent. After all, it is our data- and that may make it the world’s most democratic commodity. The trick now is just to figure out how to make sure it creates value for all of us.
It’s time that we recognize that the conversation about personal data isn’t just about security, it’s about how we share value. And values. And until we have that conversation openly- outside of rarely read contracts- it will be the divide that pulls us apart.