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.
At the heart of our project is the community of practice concept, which refers to a group of like minded people connected through a process of social learning. A CoP does not necessarily conform to organizational boundaries but rather to interests and interactions, and during our meetings we discovered some important relationships between organic farming movements in Sri Lanka and other organizations, including the Department of Export Agriculture.
We are using Frontline SMS in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to send stories and lesson plans every day to elementary teachers in rural areas. The SMS story team includes international volunteers working with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and the research project is funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) through the Economic and Public Sector Program (EPSP).
SMS remains the most popular two-way communications platform on the planet. In most cases, it's inexpensive, casual, and discreet for users. It also represents one of the more profitable features offered by mobile network operators. And while SMS does face an increasingly fractured market, largely from the growth of messaging apps, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Here are 5 reasons why:
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 email@example.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.
Three weeks ago, FrontlineSMS launched its first new full release in over a year. Today, we're releasing version 2.0.2, which includes useful bug fixes and small tweaks to the functionality that make it even easier to use. You can expect regular releases from us from now on, with new features coming out every couple of months. Check out our launch blog post, and our Version 2 microsite, for more information about the software. In this post, we wanted to share more of the background to the decision to rewrite our software from the ground up, and some of the key principles that have informed our work over the last eighteen months.
In late 2010, we were working with Medic Mobile, Dale Zak, Ushahidi and others to build extensions to FrontlineSMS which would allow users to manage more complex contact records, map reports offline, and build in scheduled SMS to the platform. Version 1 of the software was tough for volunteer coders, or other partners, to extend. Without APIs, any alteration had to be hard-coded into the software, and plugins were hard to make inter-operable with one another.
The crunch point came when we asked Alex, our Lead Developer, how long it would take to build the kind of Contact Records Management (CRM) we wanted into the platform - he told me it would probably be quicker to start again. We realized that every time we wanted to respond to user needs and add a new feature it would be an additional delay and drain on our resources. Building extension code into the core software was always going to be a mammoth task. So we started looking in earnest at the possibility of redesigning the software for a new set of requirements.
At around the same time, we met Gabe White of Small Surfaces, a user interface design consulting firm in Kampala. With his help, we spent the first part of 2011 interviewing a wide range of existing FrontlineSMS users, and analyzing user survey responses and forum conversations to understand how FrontlineSMS could be improved. Key feedback was that users were used to a certain type of interface in communications platforms, thanks to widely-used services and applications like Gmail and Microsoft Outlook - they wanted to see an inbox, and be able to monitor their sent and pending messages in one place. If FrontlineSMS behaved like other communications platforms they were already familiar with, new users would pick up the basics of the platform more easily.
We had noticed from our 2010 user survey that only a relatively small group of ‘super-users‘ - very tech-savvy, for the most part, and often part of the ICT4D sphere - were using the more advanced elements of FrontlineSMS to reply automatically to messages, allow end users to join and leave groups using SMS commands, and transfer message content to web- or network-based services and databases. We wanted to make it easier for all of our users to branch out and use SMS in more powerful and professional ways. So the design of FrontlineSMS Version 2 is a commitment to helping users to discover more about the platform and use increasingly sophisticated functions. Activities are a simpler way of conceptualizing the keyword functionality that has always existed in FrontlineSMS. Keyword settings, and many other elements of the software, can now be set up using simple walk-throughs, prompting users to make the most of functionality available to them.
Many users commented that, over time, they were accumulating huge numbers of SMS and contacts, but were unable to perform simple operations (grouping, moving and deleting, for example) on multiple SMS or contacts at once. Similarly, without a sophisticated search function, users struggled to maintain control of the backlog of SMS, and find important communications quickly. Manipulating the data in another program required you to download the whole database each time. We have implemented fixes for all of these problems in Version 2. You can now manage multiple SMS and contacts at once, using check-boxes; control search outputs using date-ranges, group membership and other characteristics; and export the SMS received through specific activities at the click of a mouse.
A new developer team
Building all of this has been about a year’s work, all but the very first few weeks of which has been done in Nairobi, Kenya. Alex moved to Nairobi in the spring of 2011 to set up a larger development team, and over the last year we have welcomed David, Geoffrey, Joy, Roy, Sitati, and Vaneyck, with Hussain in London rounding out the team. All of them have contributed hugely to the process of designing, building, and launching version 2 and although some have, or may in future, move on to other things, they will always be part of the team that made this all happen. As we look beyond the launch and begin to plan additional features, we have a fantastic base to build on, from our very colorful offices in the centre of a growing Tech City in Kenya’s capital.
We know we have a lot more to do. Some of version 1’s features, including the Frontline Forms interface and our Translation Manager, are still in the works. Some will come swiftly, such as Subscriptions Manager (which takes the place of the join/leave group keywords in version 1) and which is almost ready. Others are concepts we want to take some more time to get right; such as how Version 2 handles building Forms, and how it will display data collected on a mobile device and submitted through a variety of channels. You can read more about our planned features on our Upcoming Features page.
The whole FrontlineSMS team, including volunteers and fantastic partners like Gabe and the Software Testing Club, have put a tremendous amount of energy into Version 2; we are really proud of it and at the same time we feel like we’re just getting started! We couldn’t have got to this point without our users, who gave us the original inspiration, helped shape the design, and continue to contribute feature requests, testing and the drive to keep improving on FrontlineSMS.
We can’t wait to hear what you do with it.
Here is the latest FrontlineSMS newsletter, updating our community on recent activities and upcoming events. You can check out all the news below, and sign up to receive our e-newsletter directly on the right hand side of the screen.
FrontlineSMS Version 2 Global Launch!
We are excited to announce that we will be releasing FrontlineSMS Version 2 on June 12th 2012. Two years in the making, and built upon extensive input and feedback from our users around the world, this new version of our software is a significant step forward – easier and more intuitive to use, more versatile, and capable of being more easily extended with new functionality.
FrontlineSMS Version 2 will be launched at three events on three continents – in Nairobi, Kenya and Washington, D.C. on the 12th June, and in London, UK on the 18th June. Find out more and sign up to attend these events here, and keep up to date with release news via our blog. Demand for the launch events is high, so make sure to sign up as soon as possible!
Sector Specific Versions of FrontlineSMS
Two of FrontlineSMS’s sector-specific projects – FrontlineSMS:Learn and FrontlineSMS:Credit – have recently released new tailored versions of our software in beta. These tools are currently built on Version 1.7 of FrontlineSMS, but will be extended onto FrontlineSMS Version 2 in future.
FrontlineSMS:Learn is a version of the FrontlineSMS platform that will appeal to educators and development programs all over the world. The FrontlineSMS team, in partnership with the USAID-sponsored SHOPS Project implemented by Abt Associates, Jhpiego, and Marie Stopes International, designed this tool to help local schools, trainers, and educators increase knowledge retention, facilitate long-term changes in behavior, and, ultimately, improve the quality of education and training in the last mile. You can find out more and access FrontlineSMS:Learn in beta here.
FrontlineSMS:Credit’s first software product, PaymentView, was launched a few months ago, and since then the team has been hard at work bringing on new partners and expanding our user base in Kenya. So far, we have a Financial Services Association using PaymentView to receive group loan repayments and a microinsurance provider using PaymentView to receive policy premium payments. Over the next few weeks, we’ll also be adding another Financial Services Association and an agribusiness, which will use PaymentView to manage a network of sales agents working in rural areas. You can find out more and access FrontlineSMS:Credit’s PaymentView in beta here.
The Future of FrontlineSMS
Last week we announced some big changes to the FrontlineSMS management team, with our Founder Ken Banks making a transition and stepping back from daily operations. Going forward, Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald will be FrontlineSMS CEOs. You can read more about this new management structure and our plans for the future here. Its a very exciting time for us here at FrontlineSMS, with new software being released and our team and community growing at an unprecedented rate, driving innovation in mobile technology all over the world. We are very much looking forward to what comes next!
News from the Community o/
FrontlineSMS prides itself on our active and global user community. There have now been over 25,000 downloads of our software, and our online community forum has over 2,500 members regularly interacting on FrontlineSMS use. Below you will find the latest news from our buzzing user community.
Face-to-Face User Support at FrontlineSMS Drop-ins
To help users get started with our software and troubleshoot any problems, we currently offer free user support via our community forum and online resources. Since March 2012 we’ve also been offering face-to-face help through our new monthly user support drop-in sessions. These are currently held in our Nairobi, Washington, D.C. and London offices. The details of drop-in sessions will regularly be updated here. Don’t forget to email us via firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know if you plan to join the sessions in-person, and you can also feel free to join online via Skype (ID: FrontlineSMS_Support) or Twitter (@FrontlineSMS).
Global User Meet-ups Continue to Grow
FrontlineSMS users have been connecting with each other across the world to share their own knowledge and experiences of using our software. These user meet-ups started in Haiti at the end of last year, and there have since been meetings in Uganda, Cambodia and Kenya. They are driven by the passion and engagement of FrontlineSMS users and our FrontlineSMS Heroes, too. You can read more about this on our blog, and if you’d like to suggest a meet-up in your area you can do so via this group on our community forum. FrontlineSMS Community Survey Results
Towards the end of 2011 we launched our second user survey, which ran until the beginning of 2012 and now, the results are in. In the survey responses an incredible 97% of people said they’d recommend FrontlineSMS to others. We also found that people are using and testing FrontlineSMS in over 80 countries across the world, with Kenya and the Philippines leading the field. You can read more about the results on our blog. Thank you so much to all those who responded to our survey – we really appreciate knowing more about our vibrant global community of users! o/
FrontlineSMS in Action
It is inspiring for us to see the many ways our software is used across the world. Thank you to all those users who have shared their stories of FrontlineSMS in action. Recent highlights include: * Citizen journalists empower communities in Indonesia * Ministry of agriculture in Cambodia use FrontlineSMS * Engaging Afghan radio audiences through SMS * Sharing women’s social knowledge in Sri Lanka * Coordinating use of FrontlineSMS at next Kenyan elections * SMS helps improve service delivery after Pakistan floods
If you would like to share your story of FrontlineSMS in action email email@example.com to let us know!
New user resources
FrontlineSMS now has a wide range of free user resources available on our website. The below are a few new resources produced in recent months. These resources have been created based on Version 1 of FrontlineSMS, but where relevant we will be updating them following Version 2’s release. We hope you find them helpful!
* Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on FrontlineSMS The FrontlineSMS community forum provides a place for users to interact with each other and our team, and ask questions about our sofrware. We have collated the most frequently asked questions from the forum into a FAQ to provide an accessible way for you to find out more about FrontlineSMS. * Communications for Change: How to use text messaging as an effective behavior change campaigning tool This resource, produced collaboratively with Text to Change, provides an introductory guide, suggesting some key points which can usefully be considered if you are planning to use SMS as a campaign tool. * Step-by-step guide on using FrontlineSMS with Ushahidi Synching FrontlineSMS with mapping tool Ushahidi enables users to map and visualize incoming SMS reports, which can be useful in a wide variety of ways. FrontlineSMS have produced this step-by-step guide together with the folks at Ushahidi in order to make it easier to synch our software with both Ushahidi and their cloud-based mapping tool, Crowdmap.
Global FrontlineSMS team continues to grow
Since the beginning of 2012 we have taken on 6 new team members; 3 in our Nairobi office and 3 in our Washington, D.C. office. We currently have 17 people in our offices across the UK, Kenya and the US, and our team is still growing! The recent additions to our team are as follows: * Three new Developers: Joy Kendi, Vaneyck Otoki, Sitati Kituyi * Cathryn Paine, Operations Manager in our Washington, D.C. office * Chris Albon, Governance Project Director * Simon Choi, Head of Finance You can find out more about them on the team page of our website.
We also bid farewell to one of our Developers, David Kutalek, who has been a key member of our team in Nairobi for a year. We wish David all the best in his new role as co-Founder of Spatial Collective.
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Thanks for reading our latest newsletter – we hope you’ve enjoyed it and we’d love to hear what you think. Let us know your views, your requests for future newsletters and any other comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The FrontlineSMS Team
For the past six-and-a-half years, FrontlineSMS has been something of a labour of love for me. Initially inspired by a decade of work with grassroots non-profits across the African continent, FrontlineSMS spoke directly to how I felt development should be done. Three years at university, dozens of field trips and countless discussions with development professionals convinced me that the future was bottom up, yet many of the mobile tools I came across in the early years of the discipline were quite the opposite. Tools, I believed, needed to be simple, appropriate, give control to the user and be built with those non-profit users in mind, and up until then little was. In 2003, when I started my career in mobile, it was clear that the technology held huge potential for the grassroots NGO community. As I approach my ten year anniversary that potential has largely been proved, but we're still some way off reaching our full potential. It's been an honour to be part of the growth, and an honour to have helped - in some small way - the work of countless dedicated NGOs as they battle to use mobile in their work.
Although the idea for FrontlineSMS came about after a series of conservation trips to South Africa and Mozambique, I had a hunch that conservation NGOs in other places faced the same communication challenges. I also felt that other disciplines - health, agriculture, education and human rights among them - were no different, so FrontlineSMS did not seek to solve a particular problem in a particular place, but sought to be an all-purpose tool, and be all things to all people. Today those hunches bear out, with FrontlineSMS in use in over eighty countries in over 20 sectors of development. It's been an incredible few years, and over that time it's become clear that FrontlineSMS has much greater potential than I ever imagined.
I've always maintained that it's just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and as FrontlineSMS grew its way out of my one bedroom flat in Cambridge and my VW Camper home at Stanford University, it became clear to me that the project needed a whole new set of skills to take it to the next level. In one of my favourite blog posts - " The Rolling Stones School of Innovation Management" - I wrote about how the Rolling Stones needed three different managers over the course of their careers, each of who had entirely different skills needed at different times in their growth. Funnily enough, FrontlineSMS follows a similar trajectory with different needs at the technological, business and organisational levels. As I wrote:
"As The Stones example demonstrates, each phase requires a very different skill set, and it would take an extraordinary individual to be able to manage and deliver successfully on each. While I may have been the right person – in the right place at the right time at the very least – to successfully deliver on Phase One, that doesn’t mean I’m the right person for Phase Two, or Three. A large part of building a successful organisation is assembling a talented, diverse team with complementary skill sets. Identifying gaps and being honest about our own strengths and weaknesses is a large part of the process".
Since the middle of 2011 I've been working closely with a new Senior Management Team at FrontlineSMS, working towards the announcement we're making today. Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald have worked tirelessly helping prepare FrontlineSMS to meet new challenges and prepare us for our next stage of growth. They and the team have welcomed new, talented staff, released in-depth user guides, case studies and resources, published two academic articles, started a consultancy, brought in new funds, released Beta versions of exciting new FrontlineSMS products, future-proofed the software with a new, extendable, browser-based version, established a new UK entity, opened US and Kenyan offices, and recruited two Boards of Directors. It's been a busy 18 months, and we're in great shape as we enter a new and exciting phase in the history of FrontlineSMS, with Sean and Laura at the helm. Going forward, Laura will be CEO of the kiwanja Foundation, which houses our free, open-source software and user support. Sean is CEO of the kiwanja Community Interest Company, which supports users with program design advice, houses our sector-specific projects, and manages custom extensions to the platform. You'll hear more about our plans for the future from them in the coming days.
As for me, I'll continue my association with FrontlineSMS as before, and will continue to support it enthusiastically in person at conferences, through my blog, through book chapters and wider writing, and in my role of Chair of the Board. As to what I'll do with some of my new-found free time, I'm also planning to get stuck into a number of new project ideas which have been bubbling away for the past two to three years, ideas which I've been unable to do anything with due to my full-time commitment to FrontlineSMS. Further details on these new projects will be announced on my blog over the summer, so watch this space!
It's an incredible time to be working in the field of technology-for-social-change, and I'm excited about the future for FrontlineSMS, its users and the team behind it. For some people, passing the baton on such a personal project would be something of a challenge. Knowing that the project is in safe hands has made the decision much easier for me. FrontlineSMS was always going to be bigger than one person. With a fantastic team behind it, it now has the chance to step up and meet the potential it clearly has.
Wishing you all the very best,
Ken Banks, FrontlineSMS Founder
FrontlineSMS Founder Ken Banks was recently invited by Wired magazine to write an article for their "Ideas Bank" column. You can find an extract of the article below. The full version is available via Wired's website here.
Depending on how much of a sweet tooth you have, you might not rate chocolate-chip cookies, ice-lollies or crisps as Earth-shattering product inventions, but they do all have one thing in common. Along with microwave ovens, penicillin and Teflon, the ideas behind them came about entirely by accident. Despite this, a common perception of innovation remains one of men and women in white coats crowded over laboratory equipment and mainframe computers. Though this may be generally true for big-ticket items and big pharma, today you may just as likely trace a lot of the smaller -- but equally high-impact -- discoveries and inventions back to someone's garden shed.
The field of ICT4D - information and communication technologies for development - tasks itself with figuring out how to apply many of our everyday technologies for the greater social good, often in the developing world. Ironically, despite the tens of billions spent each year in official aid, some of the more promising ICT4D innovations also happen to have come about by chance. Many of the people behind them didn't consciously set out to solve anything, but they did. Welcome to the world of the "reluctant innovator"...
I would also count myself as a reluctant innovator. In 2004 I found myself working on the fringes of Kruger National Park in South Africa, trying to help the authorities improve communications with the local communities. Mobile phones were beginning to appear there and we considered using SMS to send group texts to community members. The problem was that no group-SMS technology worked in those kinds of hard-to-reach places. A few months later, the idea for a text-messaging platform was born one Saturday night over a bottle of beer and Match of the Day. The result, FrontlineSMS, today helps non-profit organisations in over 70 countries communicate critical messages with millions of the most marginalised and vulnerable people.
To read the full version visit the Wired magazine website.
FrontlineSMS software is designed to be accessible and easy to use ‘straight out of the box’ without the need for expert technical support. That said, when getting started with using a new piece of software we know how helpful it can be to have some guidance. To help users get started with our software, and troubleshoot any problems, we currently offer free user support via our community forum and resources online, but from March 2012, we're also opening our doors to you to offer face-to-face help through our new monthly user support drop-in sessions!
Once a month, our offices in Nairobi, Washington DC, and London will be open to users and staffed by our team. There will also be a monthly open chat over Skype for those who can't make it to the physical drop-ins. During these sessions the team will be there to answer your questions, demo FrontlineSMS functionality and generally provide support on using our software. The idea behind the drop-in sessions is to provide an informal opportunity for you to meet our team and ask questions about FrontlineSMS.
For full details on locations, dates and times please click here. Please email email@example.com if you plan on coming and provide us with some information on your organization and any issues you are experiencing.
FrontlineSMS has chosen the locations of the drop-in sessions based on our staff and office locations If you’re keen to discuss FrontlineSMS at a face-to-face meeting in your own country then you could always suggest a user meet-up via our community forum, too.
We look forward to hearing from you, and hope to see you at one of our drop-in sessions soon! o/
FrontlineSMS has recently been featured in an article in the Toronto Star, which provides an overview of information and communication tools being used for development (ICT4D). You can find an extract of this article below, and the full version is available online here.
In Nigeria, a young girl can ask questions about sex discretely through SMS and get accurate information. After the earthquake in Haiti, survivors in remote towns could receive money for food straight to their cellphone. In Senegal, election monitors sent updates on polling stations through their mobile phones, revising an online map in real time with details about late openings or worse. Projects like Learning about Living in Nigeria, MercyCorps in Haiti and Senevote2012 in Senegal are just a few examples of how the rapid spread of mobile technology has changed life in the global south.
Many places are jumping straight from paper records to mobile information because they are getting cellphone towers before Internet connections or even traditional phone lines. This means that for the first time it’s possible for a doctor in Guatemala City to monitor a newborn baby in a rural part of the country...
In 2001, just eight out of 100 people in the developing world had a mobile phone subscription. Now, nearly 80 out of 100 do...
This software allows anyone to set up their own communications hub to send mass messages, manage automated SMS systems and collect data from the field. FrontlineSMS allows users to connect their mobile phone to a computer, transforming communication into something more powerful and manageable.
“If you go to the developing world and you look at how cellphones are being used you can really see that people are already doing this kind of organizational management, communicating with stakeholders, communicating with people they’re working with and for,” said spokesperson Laura Hudson.
The system enables easier management of SMS messages and also allows users to set up mailing lists, collect data and code automated reply systems. Traditional procedures involved checking in over the phone with remotely dispersed members of, for example, an aid team.
“Instead of that they can send an SMS. It’s cheaper for them, it saves time and the data can go straight into their report,” said Hudson.
FrontlineSMS was used to coordinate aid response after the 2011 floods in Pakistan and to manage reconstruction in Haiti. It has also been used to remind HIV patients of best practices and nutritional information.
Many other valuable technologies are featured in the full article from Toronto Star.
FrontlineSMS Founder Ken Banks was interviewed by The Ericsson Business Review last year, and this interview has now been made available online. The interview focuses on how we often define innovation too narrowly, and why “development issues such as education require us to start with the problem, not the technology”. A summary is available on the Ericsson “Networked Society Blog” here, and the full interview is available in pdf format here. You can find an extract of the interview below:
What role can mobile technology play in development?
Mobile networks open up the possibility of reaching communities that would otherwise miss out on any meaningful connection with the rest of the world, and allow them to engage, make themselves heard and to be empowered by information.
You have been involved in many fruitful mobile-centered development initiatives. What separates the successful projects from the unsuccessful ones?
The single most important thing is starting with the problem and not the technology. It is quite common for people to grab the latest smartphone or iPad or whatever happens to be hot at the moment and try to figure out how it could be used in a development context. This approach can work, but most of the time it is destined to fail. If you go in with technology as your main objective, you will end up shoehorning it into contexts where it will not always work. The solution to a development question could be pencils or paper – it does not necessarily need to have anything to do with ict. I think that the correct sequence should instead be problem-people-technology. By “people” I mean the individuals at the grassroots who usually understand the problem better than anybody else.
To read the full interview, please click here.
FrontlineSMS relies on the support of our growing band of dedicated volunteers and interns, who provide heroic amounts of support to help us keep things running successfully. We have a page on our website dedicated to these 'FrontlineSMS Heroes' in order to acknowledge all the great work they do.
There are many different ways to become a FrontlineSMS Hero; volunteers help out with tasks such as user support on our community forum, researching how our software is used, or helping edit our website. We also regularly take on interns who dedicate a few days a week to help out a with specific projects. You can find out more about the current internship roles we have available on our Jobs and Internships page. In this blog post one of our regular volunteers, Molly Redding, shares her experiences of what its like to help out at FrontlineSMS:
I can’t believe I’ve been volunteering with FrontlineSMS for more than a year now! What a great year its been. My volunteer journey started when Laura Walker Hudson, FrontlineSMS Director of Operations, came to speak at my NGO Management course at the London School of Economics. At that time, I'd become interested in the use of mobile technology to support social development projects, so I was thrilled when Laura started talking about FrontlineSMS. I practically bowled her over after class to ask if they needed volunteers, and she kindly took my contact details.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I was on board at FrontlineSMS helping Florence analyze data received from a user survey. Since then I've been involved in a variety of projects, all of which have helped me to learn more about FrontlineSMS's work and the world of ICT4D (information and communications technologies for development).
There are many reasons I love volunteering for FrontlineSMS. First off, is being able to find out about the impact the software is making around the world. FrontlineSMS has found an incredible way to help non-profit organizations make use of affordable mobile technology. I was lucky enough to help FrontlineSMS keep track of the projects using their software, through supporting work on their user survey and their increasingly active user map. This helped me begin to understand the vastly varied uses for this platform. I learned that from agriculture to maternal health, and from California, to Kenya, to the Ukraine; FrontlineSMS is everywhere!
Another reason I love volunteering for FrontlneSMS is the people. I really love being part of a small team. They were incredibly welcoming from the first day I started to volunteer. Florence was my main contact, and I also got to spend time with Laura, Amy, Alex, Hussain and Ken, who have all been so helpful. They even got me cupcakes for my birthday!
The work I've done at FrontlineSMS has helped me feel like I am truly making an impact. I knew that analyzing the survey would help the team better understand the needs of those using FrontlineSMS. I knew that improving the user map would help to visually demonstrate all of the wonderful FrontlineSMS use cases being launched around the world. And in addition, along the way I even picked up some new skills, such as using HTML.
Volunteering with FrontlineSMS has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me. So much so that I’m still volunteering with them, even after moving from London to the US. Furthermore, volunteering with FrontlineSMS has sparked a passion for ICT4D, which I’m now pursuing as a possible career path. Even if I am not volunteering, I know I will always be involved in this great organization, watching to see what incredible things they will do next!
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It's hard to believe, but six years ago this month FrontlineSMS was quietly released into the world. There was no press release, no fuss, no fanfare and certainly no funding. "Project SMS" was conceived earlier that year, renamed "FrontlineSMS" a few weeks later, and then cobbled together on a kitchen table in Finland over the summer. For a long time promoting and supporting it was simply a hobby as I continued my life as an ICT consultant. It's an understatement to say that I'm surprised at where we are today. Over fifteen staff across three continents, thousands of users in over 70 countries around the world, and a tool which has found a home for itself in almost all fields of international development. None of that was ever part of the plan back in October 2005.
I'm equally as proud of the roots of FrontlineSMS as I am of the tool itself. I've been involved in international development in one form or another for the past 18 years, and have seen at first hand things that have worked, and things that haven't. There's much that's wrong in the sector, but also a lot that's right, and for me personally FrontlineSMS embodies how appropriate and respectful ICT4D initiatives can be run, both on a personal and professional level. There's very little I'd do differently if I started it all over again.
As I wrote earlier this month after news of our Curry Stone Design Prize broke:
Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it’s deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We’ve worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, be applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it’s this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It’s also arguably at the heart of it’s success.
These core values, built up over six years, remain central to our work. Here's just a few:
Each and every one is important to us: Putting users ahead - and at the heart - of everything we do, striving for a positive interaction with anyone who comes into contact with our work, aiming to inspire others whilst respecting a diversity of views, always reaching for better, fostering a positive "anything is possible" attitude, making sure we continue to put people - and their needs - ahead of the aspirations of the tech community, managing expectations both internally and for our users, and finally - constantly reminding ourselves why we do what we do.
As we continue to grow as an organisation, maintaining and reinforcing these values will be an increasingly important part of not only who we are, but who we become.
em>By Ken Banks, FrontlineSMS Founder. Re-posted from www.kiwanja.net Since our founding in 2003, kiwanja.net has been primarily focused on serving the needs of the smaller, local, grassroots NGO community. FrontlineSMS is testament to that approach – a low-tech, appropriate technology which works on locally available hardware and without the need for NGOs to employ the services of teams of technical experts. We haven’t got everything right, and FrontlineSMS remains a work in progress, but we’re excited about where we are, how we got here and where we’re headed.
We were recently approached by Philip Auerswald, Editor of “innovations“, to write an article on that journey, and our approach to mobiles-for-development. The result was a tri-authored piece by three members of the FrontlineSMS team – Sean McDonald, Flo Scialom and myself. A PDF of that article – “Mobile technology and the last mile” - is available here.
About “Innovations”: “The journal features cases authored by exceptional innovators; commentary and research from leading academics; and essays from globally recognized executives and political leaders. The journal is jointly hosted at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship”.
Many thanks to Phil and the “Innovations” team for inviting us to contribute
em>Regular readers of the FrontlineSMS blog may remember the FrontlineSMS case study we published last year, documenting Plan International's project on SMS Reporting and Tracking of Violence against Children (VAC) in Benin. In this re-post, from Linda Raftree's blog Wait... What, Paul Goodman talks about the tools he is using to support Plan Benin for more effective and sustainable programme management. There is more on the overall project and process via the links at the end of this post.
"Future proofing? Wishful thinking! There is of course no way to “future proof” an ICTD project. There are ways, however, to ensure that an ICT project has a fighting chance at sustainability. Here in Benin we’re revisiting the entire VAC Benin workflow in an effort to document the non-technical aspects of the project so that each person that touches this system fully understands the way that information moves through it. In addition to supporting training, this small but critical step will help drive consensus around how the project should and can work well into the future.
A succinct overview of this project:
The beginning of any development initiative is often marked by energetic optimism. At the onset, when a project enjoys the attention and enthusiasm of its creators and supporters, it is easy to forget that over time this attention will wane, priorities will shift, and critical personnel will undoubtedly take on new responsibilities or even different jobs. Purposeful problem definition and documentation can minimize the impact of these eventualities and only with a thorough understanding of the problem is it possible to discuss appropriate technology-enabled responses. And yes, in the real world, the problem often shifts over time as the situation changes or new information comes to light. But with a well-defined problem you have clarity around your intent and can face new challenges head-on.
Once defined, the problem and corresponding solution must be documented so that others may benefit from the insight gained during this process and apply that insight systematically. This seems elementary, of course, but in years of ICTD work I’ve found that the documentation of both technical systems and non-technical processes is often neglected in the rush to deploy or as a result of over-reliance on a few knowledgable individuals. Furthermore, in international development, documentation sometimes plays second fiddle to the production of reports and case studies.
Now I’ll happily get off my soap box and get back to business in Benin.
After sketching out the various aspects of the information flow with my colleague Elsie, I documented the workflow in a way that can be used to inform, train, and guide others as they interact with this project. I’m working on reference materials of different shapes and sizes including a number of graphics. Several of the graphics appear below; these are drafts and will be revised with Elsie, translated, distributed to the team, and revised again. These graphics represent the way we would like the system to work and are intended to be living documents."
In this graphic I included all the critical actors and their key responsibilities:
In this flow chart, I illustrated the way that messages should be processed:
In this graphic, I illustrated the way that reports should be created:
Many thanks to Paul Goodman for allowing us to share his post here. Thanks also to Plan's Linda Raftree, whose personal blog 'Wait... What' is where the below was first published.
To read more posts by Paul Goodman you can visit his blog: www.pdgoodman.com
To read more from Linda Raftree visit her blog: http://lindaraftree.wordpress.com
Related posts from Linda Raftree's blog:
Update from Benin: charting a course forward (also by Paul)
We announced a few weeks ago that FrontlineSMS is 'rising to the Buckminster Fuller Challenge.' Now, after a rigorous vetting process, FrontlineSMS has been selected from a pool of hundreds of entries from over 35 counties to become 2011 Semi-Finalists! Named "Socially-Responsible Design's Highest Award" by Metropolis Magazine, the Challenge awards $100,000 to support the development and implementation of a whole systems-based solution that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.
FrontlineSMS was recognized for our work to bring the communication revolution to poor and remote regions, by harnessing the power and reach of mobile phones. Our software works without the internet, is easy to implement, simple to operate, and free to download. Results from a recent FrontlineSMS user survey help to illustrate our efforts to design software to work for "100% of humanity." In the survey 84% of users said they found our software easy to use.* Results also demonstrated that FrontlineSMS is being used in over 70 countries, and is particularly useful in areas of the world where other forms of communication can be difficult to access. One FrontlineSMS user said,
"I was using Frontline SMS to communicate with administrators, principals, and teachers in 50 secondary schools. In the area I was working landlines and faxes were largely unheard of, postal services unreliable, and even road access was poor. FrontlineSMS allowed me to coordinate communication between these schools to organise various school events and programs."
At its core, FrontlineSMS software turns a laptop computer and a mobile phone or modem into a mass messaging platform, empowering users to gather and share information of any kind, in any place. We see FrontlineSMS as part of a strategy that grassroots organizations around the world can adopt to leverage mobile technology for the greater good.We focus on reaching the “last mile” by designing the platform to take advantage of basic mobile phones already in the hands of billions of people throughout the developing world.
While the core platform is use-agnostic, our team is committed to incubating sector specific solutions. For example, our sister projects work with FrontlineSMS to confront challenges in access to healthcare, education, financial credit, legal representation, and media. There are clearly many other sectors in which FrontlineSMS can be utilized too. In our user survey examples emerged from over 15 sectors, including conservation, human rights, and agriculture, amongst others.
For FrontlineSMS, winning the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller prize would provide critical support for developing Version 2 of the software; an upgrade that will improve and extend core functionalities, making the software even more user friendly and interactive. Version 2 will help users of FrontlineSMS do more with the software than ever before.
As one of the 21 Semi-Finalists, FrontlineSMS will be featured as a top tier project in BFI’s Idea Index for the remainder of the program cycle. Semi-Finalists will be reviewed and discussed by 11 distinguished jurors including Valerie Casey, founder of Design Accord; David Orr, writer and professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College; Andrew Zolli, producer of PopTech and Danielle Nierenberg, Project Director of State of World 2011; and Sim Vanderyn, visionary ecological design pioneer.
Finalists will be announced in May and the winner, runner up, and honorable mention will be announced at the conferring ceremony in New York in early June.
About the Buckminster Fuller Challenge
The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is the premier international competition recognizing initiatives which take a comprehensive, anticipatory, design approach to radically advance human well being and the health of our planet’s ecosystems. The 2011 Semi-finalists are providing workable solutions to some of the world’s most significant challenges including water scarcity, food supply, health, energy consumption and shelter. The Challenge is a program of The Buckminster Fuller Institute which aims to deeply influence the ascendance of a new generation of design-science pioneers who are leading the creation of an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity. For more information visit: http://challenge.bfi.org/
*Our FrontlineSMS user survey received responses from 174 people