This year we deployed our Android SMS gateway app — FrontlineSync — to public beta. We decided to build FrontlineSync to make it easier for our users to connect the power of FrontlineSMS to the GSM network. Connecting to the mobile network can be a barrier to users, so we wanted to build a resilient and easy to use platform that would work everywhere.
After successfully using FrontlineSMS in the Tomorrow is a New Day (TND) project to monitor and improve radio dramas in the Niger Delta, SFCG Nigeria chose to use the platform in a completely different capacity in Jos, a city in Northern Nigeria. SFCG Nigeria is part of Search for Common Ground, one of the first and largest conflict resolution focused NGOs.
The expansion of mobile access has been a common refrain in international development for years now. It plays an important role in supporting human development, from economic and educational opportunities to political freedoms and human rights. Increased access to mobiles has been linked to positive social outcomes in dozens of countries.
From Colombia to Ghana to Canada, communicating with members of parliament, tracking city council spending, and advocating for environmental oversight of extractive industries are among a wide range of governance activities that have become possible for anyone with access to an internet connection, a computer, or a smartphone. That’s a lot of people, but not nearly enough.
FrontlineCloud has been out in beta for just over a month, and we’re proud to have over 450 users signed up already, sending and receiving thousands of messages. The newest addition to the Frontline product set has had an incredibly warm and supportive reception on social media and in the many lovely emails we’ve received from friends, users and donors. To everyone who has retweeted, liked, emailed and signed up to look around, a huge thank you.
Worldwide, media outlets are increasingly mastering two-way communications channels. Radio and television stations are equipped to receive text messages, phone calls, and social media inputs. Staff can then decide to respond over broadcast, or back through the incoming channel. Yet these communications are often restricted to a single node; one community radio station, or a single television outlet, connecting to its own audience. There are often gaps in transmitting that information to other outlets who might also find that information relevant.
Here at FrontlineSMS, we’ve been making software for a long time. When we first released Version 2 of our software, a little over a year ago, we were one of a few SMS management platforms available- one of even fewer that was free and open source. At the time, we were proud to have around 25,000 downloads and an active user community. You can imagine our surprise when we checked our download numbers last week and learned that FrontlineSMS has been downloaded more than 100,000 times- more than 75,000 times in a little over a year. We were so excited, we got a cake. You have to understand, when things get serious at FrontlineSMS, we get serious about getting a cake.
With shiny apps hogging the mobile spotlight these days, one could be forgiven for forgetting about SMS (“Short Message Service” or text messaging). But although apps often disguise themselves as universally useful, their data and hardware requirements preclude their widespread use in poor countries. Amongst the world’s poor, SMS is still king. Given the World Bank’s mandate to serve the exactly that population, and in response to demand from staff, I recently attended a 2-day Frontline SMS training here in DC.
The FrontlineSMS team is always keen to engage with those using FrontlineSMS for social change projects across the world. It is really valuable for us to hear user’s stories, and find out the advantages and challenges of using our software in action. This summer, Tufts University student and FrontlineSMS intern Emily Wyner visited Nairobi, with support from Groupshot and the Institute for Global Leadership, to find out more about FrontlineSMS users in this buzzing city. Here she shares her experiences of helping a youth project get started using FrontlineSMS software.
Throughout my time with FrontlineSMS, one thing has become very clear: effective program design is crucial to successfully integrating mobile software into social change initiatives. I was delighted when given the opportunity to help Plan Kenya (part of Plan International) in piloting their use of FrontlineSMS to help support their local partners. This was my chance to observe and assist the process of getting started with FrontlineSMS from initial thoughts, plans, and assumptions to final implementation. I have discovered some interesting things along the way, and it’s great to be able to share the beginning of this journey.
My initial visit with Plan Kenya was really exciting. I first spoke with Aggrey and Irumu, members of the Plan team, to give them a thorough run-down of what FrontlineSMS software is and does. They asked some brilliant questions about cost and requirements, and were keen to lay the groundwork for a sustainable project. We brainstormed smart ways to pilot the software on a small scale, such as using it for internal office communication and management or setting up one Nairobi-based youth group with FrontlineSMS to determine if it improves relations with their members. Soon enough, I was sent onward to meet with Purity and Bernard, Plan Kenya’s ICT experts. They too were very enthusiastic about the software, and promised to be in touch regarding some of the pilot prospects.
Following this they arranged for me to meet with some representatives from Jipange, an umbrella organization of 16 youth groups in the Embakasi area, and one of the organizations Plan Kenya supports. I went to meet with Jipange accompanied by Purity and Aggrey, as well as Adam from Groupshot and Jordan from TechChange, too. Plan Kenya had set up the meeting in order to discuss and arrange for Jipange to pilot FrontlineSMS in their programming.
Jordan, Adam and I began by giving the members of Jipange an overview of FrontlineSMS. Along the way, there were certain reactions that really stood out and some really insightful questions. I particularly remember a young woman named Wanjiru, founder of The Change Initiative, asking whether or not FrontlineSMS would allow her to send text messages to certain groups of people at a time, such as all the leaders of the 16 groups or all the members of one particular group. This led us to explain the suitability of the FrontlineSMS contact groups function for this project. This is the kind of question that is great to hear when introducing a new technology tool. It asks if FrontlineSMS has the capacity to do what Jipange already does (or needs to do) in a cleaner, faster, and easier way.
This is key; when a preexisting organization adopts the use of FrontlineSMS, the software should not necessarily fundamentally alter their programming; rather, it is a tool by which the programming can be made more efficient and effective. For all new users of FrontlineSMS it is necessary to know your target audience, why you are going to reach them, and how you intend on presenting yourself as a reliable, trustworthy communicator.
One eye on technology and the other on program design, the discussion with Jipange continued on with both eyes focused. More and more Jipange members joined in with questions and comments. People were chiming in with ideas about how FrontlineSMS could be used in good governance initiatives or the formation of a Jipange-run business. It became clear that everyone was set on starting to use the software.
Going forward, Jipange members (and the Plan Kenya staff who work with them) will now be in control of when and how they begin to use FrontlineSMS. They know the basics, there is support from FrontlineSMS if needed, yet most importantly they have a clear vision of how they intend on using FrontlineSMS for fundamental communication that is essential to their programming.
It will be great to keep in touch with Jipange and their progress with integrating FrontlineSMS into their daily activities. The members I met were enthusiastic and innovative, and it will be exciting to hear about the ways they go on to use FrontlineSMS in future.
Good luck, Jipange and all new FrontlineSMS users out there! Don’t forget to keep in touch. One of the best resources we have is each others’ stories.
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If you're interested in using FrontlineSMS for your work:
You can download FrontlineSMS for free here on our website.
You can connect with other FrontlineSMS users and the team by joining our community forum here.
Find out how others are using the software by reading user guest posts on our blog here.
I'm beginning this week in the small landlocked eastern European country of Moldova, talking to representatives of IREX-supported organisations running telecentres and internet access points across the region. We just had a short session on FrontlineSMS, explaining how it works, and starting to come up with ideas for how to use it. Even though we talk every day about how users innovate way beyond our wildest dreams, I somehow still wasn't prepared for the deluge of brilliant ideas coming from the floor! Here are just a few, which the group have generously allowed me to share as inspiration for others thinking about how to incorporate SMS into their work:
- In a wide geographic area, liaising with partner NGOs, colleagues, and even the authorities - even if it's just to SMS and point out an important email you sent that day. Where the Internet hasn't yet really taken hold, people often don't check their email accounts every day.
- To let people know about trainings and workshops, or ask them to get involved in campaigns and actions
- To create a feeling of community between schools and kindergartens across a wide area
- To let students know when their scholarship money is ready for collection
- To send information to newly arrived migrants in Kazakhstan, where migration is a high-profile issue; informing them of the law on registration, the contact details of their embassies in-country, and how to get a visa, a work permit, or citizenship
- In a big country, the potential as a research tool and information-sharing tool is huge
- Updating parents about their child's academic performance and behaviour at school.
Participants were also very realistic about the obstacles to using SMS. In countries where SMS bundles aren't common, costs can quickly mount up. In some countries, people often have multiple SIM cards to use across multiple networks as a cost-saving measure - subscription-based services can be a challenge here. And users realised quickly that they had to plan for the service they are considering offering to really take off, so that they would have to resource administrative support for it - but some, such as those proposing parent information services for schools, also saw that they could generate an income to cover this from a small subscription fee for the service.
A final note of caution from me was that in some of these countries, SMS are routinely monitored for political activity not favourable to the government. Where this is the case, organisations need to be aware that mobile services - or even the mobile network - can be quickly shut down, or bulk messaging heavily regulated and the SMS themselves can put both the service provider and the people they are interacting with at risk.
Over the next couple of days I'll be working with individual users on their operational and practical challenges - including types of network, operating costs and staff time - and I'll post further reflections here when I can.
This weekend has been spent at CityCampLondon, in a fog of coffee and beer, on Brick Lane and at the Kings Cross Hub, thinking and talking about using tech to make London better. I wanted to post a slightly more coherent version of my thoughts here.
At the Mobile in the City panel, I reflected on the UK's digital divide, which I've posted about here before, but took it further to suggest that the same factors preventing people from getting online might militate against them having a smart phone. As of January 2010, there were 11.1 million smart phones in the UK, 22.6% of active mobile contracts. Over three quarters of us still use 'dumb' phones. And while 31% of us browse the internet on our phones, 18% access social media and 13.7% access the news, 90.3% use SMS, or text messaging. Ok, so smartphone adoption is growing by an amazing 70% year on year, but I would argue that it's likely that the most marginalised and most vulnerable in society will be the last to see the benefits. Put simply, there's still an excellent case for using SMS to interact and communicate with people we struggle to reach using other technologies.
An example of this would be people who are rough sleeping, or homeless. A friend told me that when she volunteered in a soup kitchen, the most common request was for her to charge the batteries of people's pay-as-you-go phones behind the counter. Three soup kitchens, and one soup VAN, have downloaded FrontlineSMS to keep in touch with their regulars by text. Others are running helplines for teens, and domestic violence sufferers, or using SMS as an adjunct to treatment and support programmes for people with depression. People are collecting survey information, even reports of bird sightings. I'm searching right now for someone in the UK to house and maintain a simple FrontlineSMS hub to support activists monitoring evictions of Gypsies and Travellers in Essex (if you can help, let me know - no experience or tech knowhow required! Read more about this here.)
What these ideas have in common is that they aren't dependent on introducing new tech of any kind - just using technologies and communications media that people already have in their pockets, to enable them to do what they were doing before, but reaching further and doing better. The questions I've been asking people as we've gone through the third day here at the Hub Kings Cross are - who are you trying to reach? And what are they already using? Do you understand the social context? How boring I must sound.
Events like CityCamp and OpenTech are great but can be all about the tool. My plea this weekend has been to put the end user first. I'm not saying you shouldn't get excited and make things, but there is a gap between innovation (coming up with a tool) and implementation at scale (widespread use and social impact), and the bit in the middle is the human element. Make things easy, both for end users and for the organisations trying to reach them - keep technology simple and recognisable, keep the need for training to a minimum, keep barriers to access AND to implementation low. This remains a challenge for FrontlineSMS as we head towards our sixth year, but one we're determined to crack.
The corollary to this is that too often these events result in new organisations trying to cover similar ground in a new way. How frustrating that established players are so seldom flexible enough to pick up new ideas and adapt their existing models to take advantage of them. The pitches we're hearing right now (I'm writing this from the shadows as braver and more brilliant people than I pitch NESTA and Unltd for funding to bring their newborn ideas into the world) are strikingly diverse in style and approach, and in the problems they seek to attack. If there's something I'm disappointed about this weekend, it's that more people from the public sector haven't stuck around to understand how simple technologies can transform how they interact with their clients.
Thanks to Dominic Campbell and the FutureGov team for a great event and for bringing together a diverse bunch for three days - and thanks for inviting FrontlineSMS!
As occasionally happens, Ken and I find ourselves on opposite sides of the world at conferences this week. Ken is at Mobile Web in Africa 2010, in Johannesburg, and I'm hereby asking him to tell you all about it here when he gets a minute. o/ I'm at Design for Persuasion in Ghent, Belgium, with a room full of people who've never heard of FrontlineSMS - this is only the second time I've done this kind of event, but it's something we're committed to doing because that's how we get the word out to new audiences. As I did after the Digital Indaba in July, I thought I'd post the gist of my talk here. You can also listen to an AudioBoo which I recorded in a far more coherent manner than the actual talk, shortly afterwards.
Sidenote: I showed, as I always do, Ken's favourite diagram of 'social mobile's long tail'. Related but different is the persuasion map we're all developing (read: wrangling over) live at the conference, at BJ Fogg's suggestion. It maps technologies along axes showing prominence versus usefulness. SMS has already moved from unknown to well known, and from useful to not useful, a couple of times. Will be interesting to see where it ends up - or who gives up first...
Since I joined the team back in March I've spent a lot of time emailing our users and begging them for stories and feedback about their experience. You can read a version of this plea here! Many of you have given generously of your time and energy to write and tell me your thoughts on the platform and the challenges of implementing using SMS.
Something that surprised me a bit was the low proportion of users who were utilising more than the most basic functionality in FrontlineSMS. Many, perhaps 90-95%, are using only the functionality up to and including keywords to automatically respond to incoming SMS, or simply organise incoming SMS. But not all are aware of additional plugins like the Reminders module and the enormous potential of Medic's PatientView. Even auto-subscribing people to groups via SMS is a step beyond what many have time to set up.This might be controversial - do people disagree? Am I getting a false picture?
If not, the low take-up of advanced features is probably to do with capacity and time - both for many of the small community-based organisations who are our target user, if we have such a thing, and for larger NGOs and international organisations. Indeed, we know at times people struggle to get basic FrontlineSMS functions working effectively and meshing well with their existing work. We're tremendously excited about the potential of new functionality and technology, and small groups of users will be able to make excellent use of them - but for the majority of users, basic troubleshooting, support and advice are critical.
In the coming weeks we'll be working on our plans for the software in 2011 - stay tuned for more from this from our Lead Developer, Alex. Our role in providing user guides and resources, advice and support, and even training is something we're also looking carefully at. As ever, we'd welcome your thoughts.
The timing of this article could not have been better, given the discussions last week on the merits of mobile-based "cloud computing" and the clarification of our position a couple of days later. Despite advances in mobile devices and data connectivity, the need for mobile tools to also be able to work in less than optimal conditions is still as strong and as relevant as ever, as this use of FrontlineSMS by Telecoms Sans Frontiers in Nicaragua shows us all too well. "TSF - No Bugs In This Software That Fights Disease" (re-printed with the kind permission of SatNews.com) November 5th, 2009
"Since the beginning of October, Nicaragua is facing a huge rise of dengue cases, which has become a major public health concern in the country. The Health Ministry of the Central American nation (Minsa) has a crisis unit (SILAIS) which currently focuses its activities in response to both the dengue and H1N1 plagues. An Internet monitoring system has previously been set up to control the health situation in the country; nevertheless access to computer is often difficult in some regions where only few health centers are equipped.
Due to this serious situation, and the necessity to improve the collection of information, TSF, in collaboration with PATH (an international non-profit organisation that aims at enabling communities worldwide to break longstanding cycle of poor health) is reinforcing SILAIS’ capacities in Information and Communications Technologies.
In order to monitor the spread of the dengue in Managua and to conduct mobile health actions, TSF has been implementing for the first time a very innovative system based on a widespread, cheap and solid technology, GSM.
To set up the program, TSF uses FrontlineSMS software. Developed by a TSF partner NGO, FrontlineSMS is free, open source software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone into a central communications hub. Once installed, the program enables users to send and receive text messages with large groups of people through mobile phones. Thus, GSM technology is used to reach as many geographical zones as possible to control health issues in those areas. The server in SILAIS is connected with the 32 health units in Managua.
Each health unit has been delivered a mobile phone by TSF, so that they can send different kinds of information through SMS to the server. Hospital and health centers fill in predefined forms from their mobile phones and send them by SMS to SILAIS. Designed by PATH and the SILAIS, those forms provide data about the classic and hemorrhagic dengue cases, about the H1N1 2009 ones and the need for medicines when the stock nearly runs out. Once the forms received, the server stores information and puts them in databases in order to facilitate statistical analysis, on Excel format for example.
TSF provides two-way communication to health units enabling SILAIS to receive a daily report and gather messages from the health units and will have an updated situation in each center. At the meanwhile, SILAIS will also be able to communicate important information to them through SMS (such as an alert or a warning about coming meetings for example) or give them automatic answers to predefined questions sent by the health units.
By providing communication links between health structures and the SILAIS, TSF will allow the Health Ministry to have more accurate information about the diseases spread within Managua and quickly survey and assess the needs in affected areas. TSF helps health professionals use advanced methodologies such as smart phones and open-source software. Mobile devices are great tools to track and transmit crucial data in order to detect an epidemic threat at an appropriate time. Through this program, TSF participates in strengthening health systems in Nicaragua.
Following the installation of the system, on October 24th, TSF organized training for all the beneficiaries of the project. The health units and SILAIS staff were trained on the application’s functionalities and available services".
For a related article on FrontlineForms, the FrontlineSMS data collection tool used by TSF for the project, go here.
The depth and range of discussion generated by my last post on "the cloud" and "appropriate technology" may have come as something of a surprise, but one thing is clear. There's a great deal of misunderstanding around the topic, particularly with people who are either developing or promoting tools based on the very technology I was challenging. The only way to avoid this kind of confusion is to spell out our positions clearly, and I made this point in that very same post. So how do we move on from here? Well, we need to set out our positions clearly as a marker in the sand for future discussion. So, let me go first. To clear up any present and future confusion, here's the official FrontlineSMS / kiwanja.net position on what I consider five key "mobile tools for development" areas - location in the "long tail", scaling, replication and growth, open sourcing and access to "the cloud".
1. Who are your target audience?
Some time ago I butchered Chris Anderson's "long tail" concept and adapted it for mobile. It seemed like the best way of categorising the different focus areas for mobile tools - high-end for larger organisations down to low-end for small grassroots ones. Here's what I came up with.
The basic rationale behind the diagram is this. Tools in the red area are technically and financially out-of-reach of many grassroots NGOs, many of whom sit in the green space. Tools at the higher end of the graph are generally more complex, server-based systems which require a high degree of technical competence, and often the Internet, to set up and use. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, need few technical skills, work on easily available hardware, don't require the Internet, and are easy to install and run. Tools in the green space can be quickly adopted and replicated - within hours - whereas tools at the other end need much more planning, i.e. more people and more lead time, and most likely a degree of training.
Note: There is no right or wrong or good or bad place on the tail. There are just different places
From its early beginnings in South Africa in 2004, FrontlineSMS has been totally focused on grassroots NGOs in the green space, an area which I believed back then was heavily underserved (and to a large degree still is). We're not particularly interested in big users such as international NGOs or government departments. So if our tool isn't considered right for the kinds of big projects they're likely to be running, then that's fine with us.
I wonder where the other social mobile tools would place themselves on the tail?
2. What is your position on scaling?
Believe it or not, not everyone wants to build tools that can grow into large centralised solutions, which is how many people seem to define scale. No one is ever going to run a nationwide election monitoring campaign running into millions of text messages using a single laptop, cable and mobile phone. FrontlineSMS is based on "horizontal scaling", gained by an increase in the numbers of individual users with their own systems. In other words, a hundred systems in a hundred clinics serving 10,000 people each, rather than one system adapted and "scaled up" to serve a million. We're happy and comfortable with this approach, as are our target audience of grassroots NGOs.
3. How does it replicate and grow?
Growth is based on patience, and a "pull" rather than "push" approach, i.e. awareness-raising and then letting NGOs decide if they want to try out the tool or not. Those that do then go and request it from the website. Everything is driven by the end user, who needs to be independently motivated to download and use the tool. There is no need for us to be involved at any stage, so no-one flies anywhere and no-one does any training - note that the approaches of FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit may be different - and no-one tries to "sell" FrontlineSMS to anyone. The solution is designed to allow users to do everything themselves. No core FrontlineSMS implementations are driven by us, and none are our projects. Use is replicated by users sharing experiences, talking about their use of the tool to others, and growing numbers of champions who are either building their own solutions around FrontlineSMS, or bloggers and researchers who write about its use and impact.
4. What is your position on open sourcing?
Again, from the very beginning we have been unashamedly focused on our end user - NGOs in developing countries seeking easy-to-deploy mobile tools. Our end users are not programmers, coders or technical developers, and few if any of our FrontlineSMS user base would have any idea what to do with source code. We decided that we would focus on the open source community once we believed we had something worth working with, and that time is about now. In between working on everything else, we plan to launch a developer community soon. That all said, there are already a number of developers bolting on new functionality to the core FrontlineSMS platform, and 90% of the code is already available online and accessible through SourceForge.
5. Does access to "the cloud" matter?
FrontlineSMS only came about four years ago because of a critical lack of tools that allowed for group messaging without the need for the Internet. Building a tool which is able to operate in Internet-free zones has therefore been central to our thinking since the very beginning, and continues to this day. Beyond basic messaging, FrontlineSMS can make use of an Internet connection when and where available - messages can be forwarded via email, or posted to websites, for example (that's the functionality Ushahidi takes advantage of) - but no Internet is not a show stopper for us. And as time moves on and connectivity does improve, we'll be ready. We're adding picture messaging in the next couple of months (for example), and other web-based features are in the pipeline. We are not anti-Internet, but realistic when it comes to its availability and reliability.
So, that's our line in the sand. If anyone else has a mobile tool - or is working on a mobile tool - I'd encourage them to clear up any possible confusion and write a post outlining their thinking in these five areas. The alternative is more confusion, and more false arguments and comparisons.
I know I'd love to know the thinking behind more social mobile tools, and going by the reaction earlier this week, it looks like I'm not the only one. Now is a good-a-time as any to join the conversation.
Read responses and "lines in the sand" from:
(As of 20th December, no other mobile tools providers have responded, which is a shame. May the confusion and misrepresentation continue...)
This video is also available on the FrontlineSMS Community pages
Although I've only been writing about the social mobile long tail for a couple of years, the thinking behind it has developed over a fifteen year period where, working on and off in a number of African countries, I've witnessed at first hand the incredible contribution that some of the smallest and under-resourced NGOs make in solving some of the most pressing social and environmental problems. Most of these NGOs are hardly known outside the communities where they operate, and many fail to raise even the smallest amounts of funding in an environment where they compete with some of the biggest and smartest charities on the planet.
Long tail NGOs are generally small, extremely dedicated, run low-cost high-impact interventions, work on local issues with relatively modest numbers of local people, and are staffed by community members who have first-hand experience of the problems they're trying to solve. What they lack in tools, resources and funds they more than make up with a deep understanding of the local landscape - not just geographically, but also the language, culture and daily challenges of the people.
After fifteen years it should come as no surprise to hear that most of my work today is aimed at empowering the long tail, as it has been since kiwanja.net came into being in 2003, followed by FrontlineSMS a little later in 2005. Of course, a single local NGO with a piece of software isn't going to solve a wider national healthcare problem, but how about a hundred of them? Or a thousand? The default position for many people working in ICT4D is to build centralised solutions to local problems - things that 'integrate' and 'scale'. With little local ownership and engagement, many of these top-down approaches fail to appreciate the culture of technology and its users. Technology can be fixed, tweaked, scaled and integrated - building relationships with the users is much harder and takes a lot longer. Trust has to be won. And it takes even longer to get back if it's lost.
My belief is that users don't want access to tools - they want to be given the tools. There's a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some 'cloud'. This may sound petty - people wanting something of their own - but I believe that this is one way that works.
Here's a video from Lynman Bacolor, a FrontlineSMS user in the Philippines, talking about how he uses the software in his health outreach work. What you see here is a very simple technology doing something which, to him, is significant.
In short, Lynman's solution works because it was his problem, not someone elses. And it worked because he solved it. And going by the video he's happy and proud, as he should be. Local ownership? You bet. o/
Now, just imagine what a thousand Lynman's could achieve with a low cost laptop each, FrontlineSMS and a modest text messaging budget?
Four years ago was a very lonely time. Not for me personally, understand, but in the social mobile space. The wider non-profit world was just beginning to take a serious interest in what the technology had to offer, and in 2004 I'd just co-authored one of the earlier reports - funded by the Vodafone Group Foundation - on the use of mobile technology for conservation and development. To give some context, these were the days when it was widely believed that "poor people in developing countries" would never be able to afford a phone, and the days when concrete case studies on the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change were few and far between. Most evidence was anecdotal. A revised report would look very different today, but with one exception - many of the conclusions would likely still stand. If that's the case, how far have we really come?
Four years ago this week I came up with the concept of a laptop-based group messaging hub. The software I ended up developing is better known today as FrontlineSMS ("ProjectSMS" was the working title for the first few months). When I eventually got the resources together to write the first version in the summer of 2005, there was zero chance of reinventing any wheels. The "social mobile applications" shop was quite literally bare. After extensive research for a project I had been working on with South Africa National Parks (SANParks), there were simply no appropriate technology mobile solutions they could easily pick up and run with. The situation seemed crazy, and I had a hunch that SANParks were not alone in their need for an appropriate, portable, GSM-based communications tool. The rest is history, as they say.
Things are not quite so lonely today and 2008 - for me, at least - goes down as the year things really began to change. For what seemed like an age, FrontlineSMS was one of the few appropriate technology-based mobile tools aimed at - and openly and freely available to - the grassroots non-profit community. For a while it was the only one. It was also likely the first to be developed specifically with the NGO sector in mind - most other solutions were commercial offerings which found their way into the hands of NGOs, quite often the larger international variety with the funds, expertise and resources to use them. The frustration for me was that - until last year, at least - many of the emerging 'non-profit' mobile solutions seemed to be following that same model.
Enter "The Social Mobile Long Tail", my attempt at mapping out the social mobile applications space (you can read the original post, which explains the thinking in detail, here).
The basic rationale behind it was this. The majority of emerging mobile solutions, platforms or tools (call them what you will) were settling in the red area, and as such were technically and financially out-of-reach of many grassroots NGOs, many of whom sit in the green space. Tools at the higher end of the graph are generally more complex, server-based systems aimed a multinational NGOs or government departments. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, appropriate and easily replicable solutions. My experiences working with NGOs in Africa over the past fifteen years has strongly influenced and steered the focus of my work towards the long tail, and I would have it no other way.
But let's just destroy a few myths for a minute. There are many out there. Here's my top three (feel free to add to these in the comments section below).
Firstly, wherever your tool sits on the graph, there is no right or wrong place for it. It's all about the context of the user. There is just as much a need for $1 million server-based, high bandwidth solutions as there are for free, SMS-only tools. In your typical scenario, national governments would likely go for the former, and grassroots NGOs for the latter, but not always. Both are valid, and tools shouldn't ever be described as "being better" than another because of it. This is a big mistake. We need there to be solutions all along the tail so that the users have a healthy applications ecosystem to dip into, whoever and wherever they may be. If you're trying to park a car into a small space, a Mini is much better than a Rolls Royce.
Secondly, let's not get all hooked up on scale. Just because a tool in the long tail might not run an international mobile campaign does not make it irrelevant. Just as a long tail solution might likely never run a higher-end project, expensive and technically complex solutions would likely fail to downscale enough to run a small communications network for farmers from a small NGO office with no mains electricity, for example.
Thirdly, we don't yet have any complete, polished mobile tools. I would argue that everything that we see in the social mobile applications ecosystem today is "work in progress", and it will likely stay that way for a very long time. Speaking with my FrontlineSMS hat on, I'd say we're probably only about 40% there with that solution right now. There is much to do, and the mobile technical landscape never stands still. Our challenge is how we all move with it, how we stay relevant, and how we all work together to share technical resources and know-how. A fragmented mobile landscape is a problem for all of us.
There have been many positive blog posts calling 2009 the "Year of Mobile". I think they could be right. I also think 2009 is going to be the "Year of the Searcher" (see my earlier blog post). As I argued back then, let's never forget it's the users of our tools who we answer to. Social change happens on the ground, often through them, and not online.
For the first time in four years things don't feel quite so lonely. I for one am hugely honoured to be working in a space alongside some of the most dedicated and talented people in the mobile and development fields, all of whom are trying to apply a range of practical solutions - all the way along the "social mobile long tail" - to some of the most pressing problems in the world today. We have a great opportunity in front of us if we stick together, remain focussed, and do not lose sight of the big picture.
After all, we don't want to be reading blog posts in twelve months time calling 2010 the "Year of Mobile", do we?