Using FrontlineSMS

Running an SMS Quiz for 1000s of users with Frontline

Running an SMS Quiz for 1000s of users with Frontline

Last month our friends at the iHub celebrated their 5th anniversary (happy birthday!) with a fittingly grand celebration in the Nairobi Arboretum. The tech conscious of Nairobi, from senior organizations to aspiring developers came along and a great day it was.

DataAid: managing information streams in the Philippines disaster response with FrontlineCloud

DataAid: managing information streams in the Philippines disaster response with FrontlineCloud

Over the past couple years, I’ve had the privilege of co-managing World Vision’s Speed Evidence Project, which seeks to improve information management in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  After most disasters, reliable field data is significant challenge - what we can find is normally incomplete and/or inaccurate.  

Send and receive SMS through from your website or service

Send and receive SMS through from your website or service

One of the most asked-about features of our apps (FrontlineSMS and FrontlineCloud) is regarding the ability to handle sending and receiving messages through a third party application or web service. Many of our users want to build apps for a wide range of application areas which talk to our apps so that we can handle their SMS functionality. Using any language that can call normal API methods many successful integrations have been developed with great success and with limited input required from us.

We Think This Means We're Officially Cool...

We Think This Means We're Officially Cool...

Most days, we roll out of bed and drink a bunch of coffee and then spend the next ten hours diligently writing code and emails and grant applications.  Not exactly the rock star lifestyle, but we're terrible at playing the guitar and have gotten kicked off of karaoke stages, so we understand.

Sexual Exploitation Outreach with Text Messaging: Introducing Project Backpage

Sexual Exploitation Outreach with Text Messaging: Introducing Project Backpage

The University of AlbertaMARS lab and the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) have been using FrontlineSMS in a ground-breaking pilot to assess the impact of using SMS to engage women who are trafficked and exploited in Edmonton, Canada. They have very kindly collaborated with us on an in-depth case study, looking at how the system was designed and set up, its impact, and what's happening next.

A bit more about FrontlineCloud: announcing a new blog post series

A bit more about FrontlineCloud: announcing a new blog post series

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.

The View from 100,000

The View from 100,000

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.

FrontlineSMS Survey Results: Can we build accessible software? Yes we can, say our users!

FrontlineSMS Survey Results: Can we build accessible software? Yes we can, say our users!

Here at FrontlineSMS, we love data. Like, a lot. If data had its own Facebook page, we’d ‘like’ it and if we took a picture with data out one night, we’d probably make it our profile picture. Data empowers, and we’re all about empowerment o/. In fact, to empower people is the why for the what we do. One thing we’re always wanting to know, of course, is how we are doing. Well we SMSed our friend data to find out – Welcome to the 2013 FrontlineSMS survey results post!

Health Information for Remote & Rural Eastern Indonesia

Health Information for Remote & Rural Eastern Indonesia

The landscape of NTT is largely rugged and infertile with a short and intense wet season. In this environment subsistence farming, the predominant livelihood, is marginal with many communities experiencing periods of hunger through the dry season. The provision of services to the rural population is difficult because there the few roads are generally of poor quality and frequently impassible in the wet season due to flooding or landslides. For many accessing health services requires walking long distances and the use of public transport where available. It is not uncommon for people in need of emergency care to be carried by a group of villagers to a point where road transport is available.

Keeping it Simple with SMS

Keeping it Simple with SMS

UN Special Envoy to the Western Sahara Christopher Ross landed in Morocco last Wednesday. While the international community anxiously waits to see where his next round of negotiations go, here's a peek into the lives of those affected most by the outcome - Sahrawi refugees. For once, a little hope for the future coming from the Sahara...

A Day Well Spent at FrontlineSMS

A Day Well Spent at FrontlineSMS

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.

Josana Academy Becomes the First School to Use PaymentView

Last week, the FrontlineSMS:Credit team returned to one of our favorite cities in Kenya, Kisumu. This time around we were ready to install PaymentView at Josana Academy and Safe Water and AIDS Project (SWAP). Josana Academy is the very first school using PaymentView, and SWAP is the first organization to make use of PaymentView’s “Targets” functionality (more on that later). PaymentView is a prototype based on version 1 of FrontlineSMS – we are currently looking at building this functionality, with improvements, onto Version 2. More on that in a future post. Our first visit was to Josana Academy, where we met the head teacher, secretary, bursar, and IT support person. The first step was to install PaymentView on the secretary’s computer, as she will be the primary user. Next, we trained the secretary, bursar, and IT support person on how to use the software. Josana Academy will be using PaymentView to enable easier processing of fee payments made via mobile money. Josana is a private primary school, so fees are collected every term. Currently, parents who live far from school and/or cannot easily access a bank branch will ask the school if they can pay via M-Pesa. These payments are either received by the secretary or bursar, or they are received by a child’s classroom teacher. Once a payment is received, the receiver must go into town to cash out and then deposit the money into the bank. PaymentView will streamline this process by enabling all payments to go to one, centralized place. This new process minimizes the number of trips to town made by the secretary or bursar, and prevents teachers from having to make trips to M-Pesa agents for withdrawal.

Josana Academy will also use PaymentView to send out notices to parents via SMS. The current process is time-consuming, as the secretary, must type up a notice and print out copies for all 477 students at the school. She normally prints multiple notices on the same sheet and must then cut the pages into multiple small sheets. The students are responsible for bringing the notices home to parents, and, as we imagine happens in every school in the world, notices are left behind or lost and never reach parents. By sending out notices via SMS directly to parents, Josana Academy can ensure that parents are receiving important messages, while saving the school time, money and resources.

Read more here.

Lessons Learned from the FrontlineSMS Community

As anyone who has experienced it will tell you, working at FrontlineSMS is no ordinary job. The ethos and values of the organisation produce a unique work atmosphere, and the many talented and enthusiastic people involved make it an inspiring place to be. I feel very lucky to have been Community Support Coordinator here for the last year and a half. The team asked me if I would like to write something for this blog, for which I’ve written so often, to reflect on what I have learned during my time working with FrontlineSMS.

The many uses of SMS

My role involved managing an increasingly active user community and helping to represent the many ways FrontlineSMS software is being used across the world. By documenting these user cases I have got to know many of the wonderful organisations and individuals in the FrontlineSMS user community. I have been continually struck by how many organisations out there are making a constructive impact despite their limited resources. Knowing that FrontlineSMS helps is incredibly rewarding - supporting election monitoring in Nigeria, providing maternal healthcare information in the Philippines, or sounding the alarm against harassment on the streets of Egypt, real-world demonstrations of the software’s impact are powerful. All this is being made possible by effective management of text message communication through FrontlineSMS.

Technology is only part of the story

Simple in concept yet brilliant in its design and application; FrontlineSMS provides a software that allows users to take advantage of SMS, the world’s most widespread digital platform, to manage communications in diverse – often low infrastructure – environments. Yet, as I quickly discovered, the technology is only a part of a successful implementation. Through working on a range of program-related user resources – such as case studies and an SMS campaigning guide – I learned that program design considerations are central to effectively using communications tools for social change. When planning to use a tool such as FrontlineSMS there is a vital need to consider critical delivery planning – outreach, messaging, integration, translation, verification and impact monitoring – in order to run a successful program. In addition, it is also essential to ensure sensitivity to behavioral and cultural factors in any given context in which a program is run; as we often put it in the FrontlineSMS office, ‘context is king’.

Grass roots change, globally

Many social change organisations are using FrontlineSMS to improve their communications at the grass roots and – as a result – increase the impact of their work. Being able to measure this impact is central to demonstrating the power of the software. An aspect of FrontlineSMS’s work which is simultaneously a strength and a challenge is our lack of ownership over implementations: making the software available as a free and open source download has undoubtedly contributed to FrontlineSMS’s wide usage, yet those who download the software have no obligation to let the FrontlineSMS team know how – even whether – they are using it.

We have tackled this challenge in a number of ways: conducting user surveys and download data analysis, researching in-depth case studies, and, most recently, launching a new monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework. It was through this kind of analysis and observation of our users that the FrontlineSMS team came to a new perception of the software’s impact.

Photo Credits: Text to Change

Although there are undoubtedly large scale implementations of FrontlineSMS, my work has focussed on supporting the many users who are successfully running programs at the community level; really getting to know their target beneficiary audience and effectively measuring and adapting their work over time.  FrontlineSMS scales horizontally rather than vertically - rather than a few massive implementations, we see thousands of users working at the community level all across the world, having enormous collective impact.

The user still comes first

One of the most amazing things for me to experience during my time at FrontlineSMS is getting to know many passionate people who are prepared to give their time and energy to help others; this includes the amazing team, the strong user community,  and the many FrontlineSMS Heroes who have given their time to help keep things running successfully. It has been a joy to work alongside such a dedicated bunch of people!

I have been particularly impressed by how FrontlineSMS users are willing to help support each other. Through the user community forum and the growing global trend of user meet-ups, there is a clear desire amongst users to see others succeed; to share lessons learned and build valuable connections with others seeking to use FrontlineSMS for positive social change.

Moving forward

I am going to miss a lot of things about working at FrontlineSMS, especially the people. I feel privileged to have been able to work with the community, and observed the amazing work so many people are doing in the mobile for social change space. Moving forward, there is a wonderful new Community Support Manager, Sila Kisoso, taking over from me. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Sila in the FrontlineSMS Nairobi office, and I know she will do an excellent job with supporting the FrontlineSMS community. I am moving on to study for my Masters in Anthropology and Development at Leiden University in the Netherlands, but I will be sure to stay in touch with the FrontlineSMS team and continue to support the community in any way I can.  I would like to thank the FrontlineSMS team, all FrontlineSMS Heroes and the user community for helping make my time working with FrontlineSMS so special!

To stay in touch with Flo you can find her on Twitter via @Flo_Sci. Watch this space for more from our new Community Support Manager, Sila, coming soon! o/

Developing a Monitoring and Evaluation Framework for FrontlineSMS

By Juliana Bedoya Carmona, Monitoring and Evaluation intern I have recently joined the FrontlineSMS team in Nairobi as part of an ongoing Monitoring and Evaluation Project rolled out by FrontlineSMS in collaboration with Tufts University Team; Bronwyn Cook, Shuvam Dutta, Amanda Meng and Julie Younes, who are also part of FrontlineSMS Heroes. So far, my experience in Nairobi has been very enriching. Getting to know the FrontlineSMS Nairobi team, meeting FrontlineSMS users and finding out about other M4D and ICT4D start-ups working out of Nairobi’s iHub, has been a very exciting and valuable learning opportunity.

Since December 2011, FrontlineSMS, in collaboration with a multidisciplinary group of graduate students at Tufts University (from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy Planning) and under the direction of Dr. Jenny C. Aker, has engaged in the development of a new Monitoring and Evaluation framework. As part of this process, I have recently joined the FrontlineSMS team in Nairobi to roll out a test phase of the M&E framework that includes working closely with user organizations in the field, receiving their feedback and analyzing preliminary data provided by them to further improve the framework as it currently stands. The objective of the M&E framework is to capture data that illustrates what type of impact FrontlineSMS may have in user organizations' everyday activities in terms of cost, time and communications efficiencies savings. By developing and testing this framework we aim to better understand and improve the ways in which FrontlineSMS may effectively advance towards achieving its mission; that of lowering barriers to transformative social change by using mobile technologies.

NGOs and other non-profit organizations have used FrontlineSMS in a wide variety of contexts and with myriad goals in mind. From real time malaria diagnosis in Cambodia to tackling violence against children in Benin, FrontlineSMS is being used in over 80 countries to lower communication barriers and facilitate social change around the world.  But how exactly does FrontlineSMS transform everyday operations of user organizations and what are the dimensions of these changes?

Measuring the impact of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) is drawing increasing attention as more organizations engage with technologies to help them press forward their organizational goals. There are, however, specific challenges linked to monitoring and evaluating efforts in this particular area. Often organizations implementing mobile technology tools such as FrontlineSMS in their operations do not set out from the start to record changes related to the incorporation of this technology. From the viewpoint of organizations providing the technologies, such as FrontlineSMS, tracking performance of their product often proves difficult as they do not have direct access to the data showing efficiencies or changes brought about by the implementation of a given technology. Given that FrontlineSMS is open source software it is also not easy to keep track of the innovative ways in which user organizations are implementing the software in their everyday operations, either as standalone or in combination with other applications.  Furthermore, gathering enough data in order to draw confident enough conclusions depends on the number of organizations willing to participate in the M&E framework, fill out surveys and provide feedback that helps tailor the evaluation instruments and selected indicators. As a result, the process of developing an M&E framework for FrontlineSMS has been a gradual and participatory one involving FrontlineSMS staff members, researchers and finally user organizations.

FrontlineSMS has been keen to listen to user organization's experiences of using the software through its annual user survey, the online community space and the development of case studies about specific organizations. The new M&E framework builds on these tools and incorporates additional ones to help draw a more complete picture of the changes that organizations notice after implementing FrontlineSMS, and how these compare among different user organizations. The elements of this new M&E framework include a logical framework, a new survey and the development of new case studies that provide additional qualitative evidence to help refine the tools that have been produced so far.

In the next couple of days we are looking to finalize a list of user organizations willing to partner with FrontlineSMS in this effort. By including user organizations in the development and testing of the first phase of the M&E framework we aim to improve the design of the system in order to capture as much rich data as possible, which will then be useful to the FrontlineSMS team and our users. We anticipate that the M&E framework as well as its results will contribute to improved understanding of the usability, benefits and challenges of implementing FrontlineSMS software; providing a clear picture of the types of costs, time and communication efficiencies that could be achieved by using FrontlineSMS; and offer a basic framework for user organizations to track their own communications, cost and time management performance in those areas in which they implement FrontlineSMS.

If you would like to find out more about our M&E framework please contact us at info@frontlinesms.com . We are particularly keen to hear from new and existing users of our software eager to measure the impact FrontlineSMS is making to their work.

Find answers to Frequently Asked Questions about FrontlineSMS!

When people first encounter FrontlineSMS software, a number of questions come up again and again, both in person and on our community forum; 'how do I access the software?' 'What does it cost to send and receive messages?' 'What can FrontlineSMS be used for?' We’ve collated the answers to these and many more Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on FrontlineSMS in a brand new user resource.

In keeping with our ethos of user-driven innovation, our community forum (a key source of inspiration for the FAQ) is a place where FrontlineSMS deployers both get help, and help each other. Members also contribute their own 'tips and tricks' on how to overcome certain challenges with our software, and so we have included them in a special section in the FAQ. We hope that by collating the FAQ we will help empower and encourage more users to reach out and support each other in the community.

This resource is by no means exhaustive; it is an organic resource which we will continue to add to with input from our user community. Your feedback and suggested additions are very welcome, and we look forward to continuing to build up this resource over time. Please do take a read through the FAQ, and let us know what you think and if it’s helpful for you!

We would like to take this opportunity to offer huge thanks to our previous Community Project Assistant, Lisa LaRochelle, for her amazing work in pulling this FAQ together, and also to Jordan Hosmer-Henner at TechChange for helping initiate the idea.

This resource would of course not have been possible without the input of our fantastic FrontlineSMS user community, so huge thanks to all of you! o/

Visit the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page. Visit and/or join our community forum.

Faster Channels of Communication: A Radio and SMS Initiative in NE Kenya

Infoasaid has recently shared some news about an initiative with Save the Children in Wajir, Kenya, which is using FrontlineSMS to communicate with field workers and community representatives. Meanwhile, the radio is being used to share information about health, education and food security.

The objective of Infoasaid - a consortium of Internews and the BBC World Service Trust - is to improve how aid agencies communicate with disaster-affected communities. The emphasis is on the need to deliver information, as aid itself, through the most appropriate channels. You can read more about Infoasaid's work on their website http://infoasaid.org/

The article is republished below with permission, or read the original post here.

Infoasaid has helped Save the Children to improve its two-way communication with half a million drought-affected people in Northeast Kenya.

The project uses mobile telecommunications and community radio to establish new and faster channels of communication between the aid agency and remote rural communities.It was launched in Wajir County, close to the Somali border, in the fourth quarter of 2011 and will run during the first six months of 2012.

Save the Children runs vital health, nutrition and food security projects in Wajir County, a semi-arid region which has been devastated by three years of drought and serious food shortages. Its operational centres in Wajir and Habaswein will use SMS messages to exchange information with health workers, relief committee members and community representatives in outlying areas.

Save the Children will also sponsor special programmes on Wajir Community Radio, the local radio station. The radio station broadcasts in Somali, the main language spoken by local people. It commands a large and loyal audience within 150 km radius of Wajir town.

Most people in Northeast Kenya are semi-nomadic pastoralists. They depend on their herds of camels, cows, sheep and goats to feed their families and generate a small cash income. Infoasaid therefore set up weekly radio programmes that will inform local people about the latest animal prices and market trends in the area’s two main livestock markets; Wajir and Habaswein.

It also helped Save the Children to design a weekly magazine programme on Wajir Community Radio. This will focus on key issues related to the aid agency’s emergency aid programmes in the area. The radio programmes, which include a phone-in segment, will focus on issues such as health, education and food security and alternative livelihoods.

The mobile phone element of the project will establish FrontlineSMS hubs at the Save the Children offices in Wajir and Habaswein. FrontlineSMS is free open source software that turns an ordinary computer into a text messaging exchange.It will enable Save the Children to broadcast SMS messages simultaneously from the computer to a variety of different contact groups in the field.

Each message is drafted on the computer, which then uses the FrontlineSMS software to send it by SMS to a large group of recipients.In this way, the same short message can be sent rapidly to a group of 50 or more people through a simple operation that takes less than two minutes to perform.

Previously, Save the Children staff would have had to telephone or visit each of the targeted individuals personally to deliver the same message. That process could have taken several days to complete

The FrontlineSMS hubs in Wajir and Habaswein will not only send out vital information. They will also capture and record incoming messages from people in the field. Each incoming message will be evaluated immediately and passed on to the appropriate person for a timely response.

Infoasaid supplied 240 basic mobile handsets and solar chargers to facilitate the establishment of these two SMS messaging networks. The equipment is being distributed to collaborators and community representatives in every location where Save the Children provides local services.

To read the original article please click here.

UN uses FrontlineSMS to help manage aid response in East Africa

em>By Lisa LaRochelle, FrontlineSMS Project Assistant FrontlineSMS is being used for social change in many different ways across the world. Common use case examples include election monitoring, provision of health information, and agricultural support –  these kinds of use cases have direct positive impact on people’s lives. Yet here at FrontlineSMS we have seen increasing numbers using FrontlineSMS for organisational management, which has indirect benefits for people which are

far harder to measure and demonstrate; helping organisations to work more efficiently, communicate more easily with their staff, and move information around more swiftly. Examples include using FrontlineSMS for monitoring and evaluation, data collection, and internal communication. It is this latter kind of FrontlineSMS use case that we recently discussed with Sanjay Rane, Information Management Officer at the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Kenya.

Mobile phone penetration is high in Kenya, and the UN OCHA staff members that Sanjay works with all have their own mobile phones. The convenience and accessibility of SMS appealed to the team, and FrontlineSMS is a low-overhead way of managing text messages to and from groups. “For the last couple of months we have been using FrontlineSMS as an in-house communication tool,” Sanjay explains “and it has certainly helped foster better information sharing among the OCHA Kenya team.”

SMS offers an immediacy and intimacy that can be seen as unique from other methods of communication. People always have their mobiles close to them, and generally read messages quickly. This has certainly shown to be the case in OCHA’s experience. They have found that using SMS helped them to reach staff, especially during an emergency occurring in off hours, when most of the staff do not check their emails. OCHA Kenya can use the tool to send out urgent updates to the team.

One of the major benefits of using FrontlineSMS is the ability to manage SMS more easily than using a simple phone handset. When trying to send out messages using a handset, Sanjay found it difficult and time consuming to add and delete people’s contact information, send messages to multiple contacts at the same time, and maintain groups of contacts. FrontlineSMS offers a simpler solution: the ability to sort contacts into groups so that, for example, an emergency alert text can be sent out to a large group of staff at once. It is also possible to set up key words and automatic replies with FrontlineSMS, so the system can automatically send people important advice and information.

The OCHA Kenya team had such success with their experience that they decided to implement FrontlineSMS to facilitate communication with a larger group of humanitarian partners in Kenya, as a preparedness tool for the referendum in 2010. They are now exploring the possibility of using SMS to help coordinate with agencies responding to the current East Africa drought. This is an indication that FrontlineSMS is enabling improved communications management in a way that was otherwise not possible.

It was the capacity to manage data in combination with the popularity and simplicity of SMS which led Sanjay to FrontlineSMS. “At OCHA Kenya, using SMS for internal communication is very popular, as it is a familiar communications tool. We have found it really valuable to use SMS for communicating with colleagues on important humanitarian developments in Kenya,” Rane says. Organisational management, although behind the scenes, can provide huge social benefits by enabling those working for NGOs and INGOs to communicate more effectively and do their challenging jobs more efficiently

Malaria Diagnosis in Real-Time via SMS

Re-posted from the Malaria Consortium blog, with permission from Steve Mellor, Malaria Consortium Systems Manager Malaria Consortium, with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded CONTAINMENT Project, is pioneering a Day 3 positive alert system in Ta Sanh district, western Cambodia, using mobile phone and web-based technology (including FrontlineSMS) to facilitate response in real-time. CONTAINMENT’s Sonny Inbaraj reports.

Effective containment of multi-drug resistant falciparum malaria depends on timely acquisition of information on new cases, their location and frequency. This is to plan interventions and focus attention on specific locations to prevent an upsurge in transmission.

Response in western Cambodia’s Ta Sanh district involves combining the process of positive diagnoses through microscopy of Day 3 positives at the Ta Sanh health centre from blood slides sent by Village Malaria Workers, to an alert system using mobile phone and web-based technology to help pinpoint potential outbreaks of malaria and target interventions to foci where parasite reservoirs are likely to be present.

The proportion of patients who still carry malaria parasites on the third day of treatment is currently the best measure available of slow parasite clearance and can be used as a warning system for confirmation of artemisinin resistance.

In Ta Sanh, the Village Malaria Workers or VMWs play a crucial role in the early detection and treatment of the killer falciparum malaria. In September 2010 the USAID-funded Cambodia Malaria Prevention and Control Project (MCC), implemented by University Research Co., LLC (URC), trained these VMWs to prepare blood slides from those who tested positive for falciparum malaria from rapid diagnostic tests. They were also trained to carry out a three-day directly observed treatment (DOT) of the Pf cases with the co-formulated ACT dihydroartemisinin – piperaquine.

Chou Khea, a 21-year-old Village Malaria Worker, trained by MCC in Ta Sanh district’s remote Ou Nonoung village tells CONTAINMENT how she carries out DOT.

“Immediately after a villager tests positive for falciparum malaria in a rapid diagnostic test (RDT), I prepare the blood slides. Then I give the drugs, which the villager has to take in front of me,” says Khea.

“On Day 2 and Day 3, I’ll go to the villager’s house and make sure that the drugs are again taken in my presence,” she adds. “After 72 hours from the first intake of the anti-malaria drugs, I’ll be at the villager’s house again to take his or her blood sample for preparing another blood slide.”

Chou Khea then takes the Day Zero and Day 3 slides, together with the used RDT, to the Ta Sanh Health Centre 30-kilometres away from her village.

“I usually take a motor-dop (motorcycle taxi) to the health centre. But most of the motor-dop drivers are reluctant to use the track to health centre in the rainy season because of the slippery mud. Also many of them are scared of the wild animals and land-mines in the area,” she tells CONTAINMENT with concern. “I hope to have my own motorcycle soon, so that I’ll be able to transport the slides and RDTs faster,” she adds with a smile.

At the Ta Sanh Health Centre, the Day 3 slides are examined by a microscopist and if asexual malaria parasites are seen they are graded as positive. The microscopist immediately sends out an SMS on a mobile phone, using a dedicated number, to a database indicating the village code and the sex of the patient.

Malaria Consortium pioneered the use of this alert system in Ta Sanh, with support from Cambodia’s National Centre for Parasitology, Entomology and Malaria Control (CNM) and the World Health Organization’s Malaria Containment Project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Malaria Consortium’s Information Systems Manager Steve Mellor explains the use of cellular text messaging (SMS) as a viable tool to send alerts and map Day 3 positives in real-time on Goggle Earth.

“We use FrontlineSMS, an open-source software, that enables users to send and receive text messages with groups of people through mobile phones,” Mellor tells CONTAINMENT.

“FrontlineSMS interfaces with an MS Access database system that was developed to host the SMS data and to provide validation on the data received and to send an automatic reply to the sender containing any validation errors found, or to confirm that the data has been accepted,” he adds.

In the Access database, a script interfaces with Goggle Earth and maps out the locations of the Day 3 positives based on the village code. The mapping on Goggle Earth is essential as it gives a clear visualisation of the terrain and helps CNM, WHO and the USAID-funded Cambodia Malaria Prevention and Control Project (MCC) to plan coordinated interventions in terms of case follow-up on Day Zero and Day 3 and carry out epidemiological and entomological investigations.

“All this happens in real-time and alert text messages are sent out simultaneously to the operational district malaria supervisor, the provincial health department, CNM and the administrators of the database,” Mellor points out.

There are plans to upscale this mobile phone and web-based alert system with InSTEDD, an innovative humanitarian technology NGO, to map all Day Zero cases. Malaria Consortium and CNM are also in direct talks with Mobitel, one of Cambodia’s main telecommunication carriers.

“We are in negotiations with Mobitel for a free number and also free SIM cards to be distributed to health centre staff and village malaria workers,” Mellor reveals. “After all, this is for a public good.”

Besides plans to map all Day Zero cases, Malaria Consortium is also exploring the possibility of sending alert messages in Khmer script.

“This will be a breakthrough and we hope this will help facilitate a quick response mechanism from CNM and other partners,” says Mellor.

SMS inspiration: A view from the Central Independent States

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.