Ushahidi

FrontlineSMS at 7: Al Jazeera gives a voice to the people of Uganda via SMS

In the third of our seven blog posts celebrating the month that FrontlineSMS turns 7, Trevor Knoblich, our Media Project Manager reflects on how Al Jazeera, the media house, gave the people of Uganda a voice, via SMS, in response to the controversial Kony 2012 video which went viral a few months ago. 

"As the media project manager at FrontlineSMS, I've heard many inspiring stories of journalists and media organizations deploying the software in creative ways. One of my favorites is relatively recent: the FrontlineSMS component of Al Jazeera's Uganda Speaks program. Members of Al Jazeera's New Media team felt Ugandan voices were lacking from the global debate around the controversial Kony 2012 viral video. To help connect Ugandan voices to the debate, Al Jazeera established an awareness-raising campaign, which consisted of showing the video and then inviting Ugandans to post their reactions to the debate via Twitter, e-mail and SMS. They even connected the responses to a map, allowing people from around the world to see where respondents were located.

"I had the pleasure of meeting one of Al Jazeera's New Media team, Soud Hyder, pictured here, and asked him about the project. Specifically, I was curious about the value of SMS in such a campaign. He told me that SMS allowed Al Jazeera to reach people who had no other option for participating in the debate - a voiceless population. 'Text is an equalizer that allows us to elevate more voices, which amplifies the conversation,' Hyder said.

"I've heard similar reactions about our software globally. Many people worldwide have an increasing ability to share and participate in news, but millions more are left out of this conversation. FrontlineSMS, combined with the proliferation of mobile phones around the globe, opens new possibilities for citizen engagement."

We’re collecting photos of our users telling the world how they use FrontlineSMS. If you want to get in on the act, take a photo of yourself or your team holding a piece of paper or a whiteboard telling the world what you do with FrontlineSMS. For example: ‘I monitor elections’, ‘I safeguard children’ or ‘I make art’. You can see a slideshow of the photos we’ve had so far on our Flickr page.

It doesn’t matter what language it’s in as long as it’s legible and if possible you should be able to see from the photo where it was taken, so, if you can, get out of the office!

You can: - post to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #FrontlineSMSat7 - email the picture and we’ll post them - post the picture on our Ning network and we’ll post them - post them on Flickr or any other web service and let us know where they are

Context is King: Knowledge Sharing on Communications Tools at BBC Media Action

By Amy O’Donnell, FrontlineSMS:Radio Manager

Recently my colleague Flo and I visited BBC Media Action for a Knowledge Sharing session which focused on the use of innovative mobile technology to enable effective communication for social change. BBC Media Action (previously known as the World Service Trust) "uses media and communication to provide access to information and create platforms to enable some of the poorest people in the world to take part in community life. With a focus on programming that directly engages people in debate and discussion thereby encouraging  communication across political, ethnic, religious and other divides in society." We felt lucky to be one of the last visitors to their longstanding home in the iconic Bush House, London as the BBC is relocating from there after 70 years.

Often when people first hear about FrontlineSMS, it’s not just the software which inspires them, but the valuable lessons we learn from how the tool is being used. BBC Media Action works to directly engage people in debate and discussion through programming and this workshop explored the potential of SMS to open up participation.

To broaden participation, combine accessible communications channels

We explored how a radio station in Uganda is using FrontlineSMS to gather incoming audience feedback via SMS to put their questions to MPs while on-air; how FrontlineSMS is engaging citizen journalists in Indonesia and how the software is being used to run a news service for women in Sri Lanka. Introducing another popular open-source platform, we explained how the Ushahidi mapping tool was used in conjunction with FrontlineSMS for election monitoring by the Reclaim Naija project in Nigeria last year to illustrate reports in relation to their location. Many of these programs use SMS in concert with other platforms, whether radio, TV or the Internet - an important element of building a truly accessible, system that works for its unique context.

BBC Media Action’s own Jonathan Robertshaw shared his experience of using FrontlineSMS as a practitioner. He explained BBC Media Action’s role in a project run by ActionAid and infoasaid which which set up a food distribution alert and food price information system in Kenya in the aftermath of the 2011 drought. The project successfully took a multi-platform approach to improving communication between relief committees, food monitors and the public. The set-up gave people options, including voice (using an interactive voice-based software called FreedomFone); detailed SMS-based data collection (using  FrontlineForms, FrontlineSMS’ data collection tool); and text message (using FrontlineSMS’s core platform).

No matter how high-tech a program is, sometimes a low-tech solution can be the ‘killer app’ - the most impactful option. In the Isiolo program, the final message in the chain relaying information about the service to the public was distributed via a paper poster taped where communities could read it. The poster included a phone number, so that beneficiaries had the option to seek further information or stay up to date. Jonathan explained how the poster was not part of the original communications plan; the project and its communications mechanisms evolved and adapted to the context. Overall, the learning from this project demonstrates the importance of offering different communications options to meet different communications needs.

Technology is 10% of the solution

As the discussion with different Media Action project leaders delved into program specifics, we explored how technology often only represents a small proportion of overall project design. Looking at potential Media Action projects - including participatory audio dramas and humanitarian radio - reinforced how important it is not to lose sight of behavioral and cultural factors as well as critical delivery planning: outreach, messaging, integration, translation, verification and impact monitoring. One of the group asked how to anticipate the resources required to run a communication platform. Particularly when the volume of response depends on the level of interactive behavior, the group agreed there is no “one-size-fits-all” or “magic formula.” Program staff have to consider the context and stay flexible, tweaking the system to respond to the needs of their beneficiaries and staff as they develop. Resourcing this kind of responsiveness is critical and difficult, and there are costs in money and goodwill involved in introducing people to a new system, changing messages and systems too often.  The group agreed that, rather than committing to services which it may be difficult to estimate demand for, organizations should manage expectations and try to test ahead of time. Trying out communications in small trials or pilots can help scope people’s reactions.

The strongest message we took away from the session was practitioners’ motivation to learn about the different tools available in the communications toolkit. Often the design of a communication system is not about one tool, but the right tool or right combination of tools which suit the context. FrontlineSMS needs limited support and people are implementing projects all over the world using the software and tools readily available to them without requiring our team’s direct involvement. We're proud of how much that makes it a really sustainable piece of software for organizations working in the last mile, and a critical tool for long-term capacity-building.

Stop Stockouts: Accountability of Health Services Improved by FrontlineSMS

By Kavita Rajah, FrontlineSMS Community Support Assistant Stop Stockouts is currently using FrontlineSMS in their campaign to increase access to medicines in public health institutions in Uganda and Kenya. Recently we’ve spoken with Denis Kibira, National Coordinator for the Stop Stockouts Campaign in Uganda, about how FrontlineSMS software has helped to achieve campaign objectives.

When a pharmacy or health center runs out of a medicine, this is referred to as a ‘stock-out’. Stock-outs often include medicines that are used to treat common but serious diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, HIV, TB, diabetes and hypertension – all of which are among the highest causes of death in Africa. In African countries such as Uganda and Kenya, stock-outs can frequently occur and it can be weeks or months before the stock is replenished. Patients needing these medicines are then forced to travel long distances in search of alternate sources, pay high prices for medicines from the private sector or they are forced to do without – ultimately facing life or death circumstances.

The Stop Stockouts campaign lobbies African governments to meet their obligations to provide essential medicines by increasing the national budgetary allocation for the purchase of these medicines and by ensuring efficiency and transparency in the procurement, supply, and distribution of medicines. The campaign is an initiative of Health Action International (HAI) Africa, Oxfam, and a number of African partners – with the support of the Open Society Institute (OSI).

Stop Stockouts was introduced to FrontlineSMS by OSI, who promoted FrontlineSMS as a very useful tool for advocacy and quick monitoring of medicine availability. Since then, Stop Stockouts has been using FrontlineSMS to aid in campaign communications. They use FrontlineSMS to send information to members, to remind partners about meetings and to update stakeholders on advocacy events.

Stop Stockouts also use FrontlineSMS in their monitoring activities such as ‘Pill Checks’; where researchers visit public health institutions to check on the availability of essential medicines. Researchers send an SMS containing the results to a common server, and the incoming data is managed via FrontlineSMS. These results are then reflected in an online map of the country, produced using mapping tool Ushahidi, and showing areas where medication is out of stock. This map provides real time evidence about the stock-out situation on a national level and serves as a compelling lobbying tool to the relevant authorities. The visual mapping of these ‘pill checks’ have increased visibility of the Stop Stockouts campaign which has contributed to the success of the campaign.

Stop Stockouts state that FrontlineSMS has greatly improved their communications. Denis explains “it has reduced the turnaround time in which we get and respond to issues in the communities where we work, and the "pill check" map has added impact to our advocacy and technical reports.” Denis says that the online mapping system using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi is especially powerful because it comes from the people. He asserts that using FrontlineSMS as part of their campaign communications has helped to reach at least 1,000 people every year. The results have been very impactful that governments are also currently using SMS to collect its own data and monitor facilities. Additionally, there has also been an increased demand for use of technology for monitoring government activities as well as new relationships for information sharing with other NGOs in different countries.

Stop Stockouts are also currently exploring using FrontlineSMS in their complaints and compliments desk which is a feedback mechanism for communities in which health service delivery, in particular human rights violations, can be reported.

We look forward to staying in touch with Denis and the rest of the Stop Stockouts team as they continue to make powerful use of FrontlineSMS software. o/

Uganda Speaks: Al Jazeera use FrontlineSMS to hear from Ugandans on Kony 2012

FrontlineSMS has been featured in an article from Fast Company's co.Exist blog, which covers how Al Jazeera's "Uganda Speaks" campaign is making innovative use of communications technologies, including FrontlineSMS. You can find a short extract of the article below, and the full article can be found here.

The groundswell of focus on Uganda and Joseph Kony continues today with the launch of Uganda Speaks, an ambitious project from Al Jazeera that will allow ordinary Ugandans to post text messages - via local SMS numbers - to let the world know what their country is really like (instead of just the #kony2012 version).

Hundreds of users, most of them Ugandans with Internet access, have already posted tweets with the #ugandaspeaks hashtag. Most of these criticize the worldwide response to the Kony 2012 video, which many of the Ugandans (and worldwide observers) claim grossly simplifies a complicated war. Al Jazeera’s Riyaad Minty told Co.Exist that “we launched Uganda Speaks to get responses from people across Uganda via text message, email, Twitter, and Facebook. The idea is to have ordinary Ugandans talk about the [Kony 2012] video in their own voice, as this has largely been missing from the conversation.”

Al Jazeera began working on Uganda Speaks on March 5--two days after the Kony 2012 video first went online. The project is using two pieces of technology for the backend: FrontlineSMS for the SMS-to-Twitter conversion, and Ushahidi to visualize and map data. The station’s The Stream program solicited a video Kony 2012 response from Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire of Channel 16 as well.

To read the full article, please visit Fast Company's co.Exist blog.

New Resource: Step-by-Step Guide on Using FrontlineSMS with Ushahidi

Here at FrontlineSMS we aim to make our software as accessible and adaptable as possible, and we’re always looking to respond to the needs of our growing user community. Through interaction with many users, we’ve found that some have successfully synched our software with mapping tool, Ushahidi. This set-up allows SMS to be submitted to the Ushahidi platform, enabling people to contribute reports to an online map using just their mobile phone. Combining FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi helps to empower organizations to both collect and share information in innovative ways; improving access, visibility and relevance of data for variety of projects, from election monitoring to mapping availability of health services. Not all users have found the process of synching the tools together straightforward, though, so we’re pleased to announce that FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi been working together to produce a clear step-by-step guide on this process, and this guide is now available.

FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi are both free and open source platforms that have been used across the world to promote social change, improve communications and support the work of non-profit organizations. FrontlineSMS converts a computer, connected to a GSM modem or mobile phone, into a two-way communications system which enables users to send, receive and manage text messages. Ushahidi is a platform that aggregates information coming from different sources (web form, e-mail, SMS, social media) and visualizes this information on a real-time interactive map. Although using FrontlineSMS with Ushahidi requires an Internet connection, those submitting reports via SMS needn’t be online. Using FrontlineSMS enables people to submit reports to a textable number, making it possible for people to contribute content to an online map even if they are not connected to the Internet themselves.

Using the two software tools in combination can have powerful and inspiring results. We have seen FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi used together in Nigeria as an electoral monitoring tool, in Egypt as instruments to map harassment on the streets and in the Democratic Republic of Congo to challenge incidents of human rights abuse. These examples help to demonstrate that SMS – as an ubiquitous and widely accessible communications channel - can help reach people that are otherwise marginalized or vulnerable. By then mapping SMS reports it is possible to show incidences by location; visually sharing information from those that may not otherwise be heard, and, in doing so, creating data that provides a powerful awareness raising and advocacy tool.

The idea for providing an updated accessible resource based on how to synchronize the two platforms was raised at a collaborative event organised by FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi in late 2011. Entitled “SMS to Map: Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to tell your story,”this event was held on the same day in London, UK and Nairobi, Kenya, and it explored how to use the two software tools together. The audience were also encouraged to think about the ways they could use these tools for social change in their own work.

We hope that offering further guidance on the process of using FrontlineSMS together with Ushahidi will help make the combination of SMS with mapping more accessible. We are keen to receive any feedback you have on this resource, or indeed any suggestions and experiences you would like to share based on your own use of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi.

So, check out the new guide here today in pdf format or on the Ushahidi wiki, and feel free to get in touch with us to share your views via the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi forums.

Thanks to Laura Walker Hudson, Amy O'Donnell, Stefania Perna and Kavita Rajah at FrontlineSMS for their input into this resource release.

We would also like to take this opportunity to offer many thanks to all others who have helped with this resource, including Linda Kamau, Linda Raftree, Anahi Ayala Iacucci and Megan Goldshine. And a special thanks to Heather Leson at Ushahidi, for all her work on this collaboration!

Supporting Education through SMS in Kyrgyzstan

IREX is an international non-profit organization working on education, independent media and civil society development. Recently, they have been using FrontlineSMS as a tool for efficient management of their Global Connections and Exchange (GCE) and Digital Youth Dialogue (DYD) programs in Kyrgyzstan. In this guest post IREX's Myahriban Karyagdyyeva and Tynchtyk Zhanadylov explain how their use of FrontlineSMS is making a difference in their work on these programs:

IREX has been implementing our Global Connections and Exchange (GCE) and Digital Youth Dialogue (DYD) programs in 22 schools and 3 librariesthroughout Kyrgyzstan. The GCE and DYD programs aim to equip students and the teachers with technology and training, in order to enhance classroom learning. In each school or library IREX has an appointed teacher who is responsible for coordination of activities between IREX and the institution. This set up requires IREX and teachers to have constant communication, in order to be able to keep up with dynamic program activities.

However, efficient communications on these programs initially proved challenging. Every day, the IREX team based in Bishkek need to send out different announcements and instructions to teachers, and at first we were doing this via email only. Yet  we soon found that teachers often aren't able to check their emails during the day, therefore relying on email to communicate was resulting in delays. Our team often had to call each teacher individually in order to ask them to check their email. This took up a significant amount of staff time, and was also an inconvenience to teachers. In addition, we also have a need to receive information from teachers every day, and so there was a clear need for a quick and interactive communications channel which could make this process more convenient all round.

The teachers and students we’re working with are attached to their cell phones, and therefore our team decided to experiment with text messaging as a method of communication. FrontlineSMS software enabled us to use mass text messaging, which streamlined our communication and allowed us to use time more efficiently. It only takes about a minute to send out text messages to all of our teachers through FrontlineSMS, whereas in the past staff were making individual calls which took a lot longer.

Currently FrontlineSMS is used in many different ways to help us administer daily tasks in our programs. This includes sending reminders to check emails or prepare for upcoming deadlines, as well as interaction between our team and teachers on any urgent questions. Using FrontlineSMS helps to improve the speed of communication, which in turn ensures that program deadlines are met and results in less time being needed for coordination of activities in different regions.

We have found that there are many other advantages to using FrontlineSMS, too. Internet speed is low outside of in Kyrgyzstan’s urban centers and connection problems are a constant challenge. Few people have internet in their homes, yet everyone has mobile phones and so using SMS makes regular communication accessible to more of those we work with. When we ask teachers how they like working with SMS, they say that they find it very convenient, useful and flexible. It helps them to implement tasks faster, and helps them stay always informed in areas which are offline. When working with different communities who don’t have regular access to internet or email, SMS is clearly a useful solution for ensuring fast two-way communication.

Moving forward we plan to continue using FrontlineSMS for communication with teachers, and we will also be using FrontlineSMS in new ways too. We plan to collect SMS feedback reports from our program participants on how often they attend IREX trainings and where trainings are being held. We will then map these reports using online mapping tool Ushahidi, and this will allow us to visualize our impact. In addition, the GCE program is also planning to use FrontlineSMS to conduct polling and short surveys among students and teachers, which will help us to further understand the value of our program and the needs that program participants have. We’re really excited about all we have planned, and will continue to build up the use of FrontlineSMS in our work.

To find out more about IREX visit http://www.irex.org

Get the Word Out: Using SMS to Support Harm Reduction for Vulnerable Women

Guest post from FrontlineSMS user Gordon Gow, University of Alberta Here at the University of Alberta we are using FrontlineSMS to support graduate student research in communication and technology. Among its range of activities, the Mobile Applications for Research Support (MARS) Lab provides access to FrontlineSMS and mobile phones to allow students and community groups to set up and run pilot projects using text messaging.

UniAlberta2
UniAlberta2

Among our projects, the MARS Lab is providing support for “Get the Word Out” program operated in partnership with Edmonton’s Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE). CEASE works through partnerships to create and pursue strategies to address sexual exploitation and the harms created by prostitution. Their work includes public education, client support, bursaries, counselling, trauma recovery and emergency poverty relief for individuals working to heal and rebuild their lives after experiencing exploitation.

“Get the Word Out” is a harm reduction service that uses FrontlineSMS to enable women involved in prostitution to anonymously report incidents or concerns about violence or crime that is affecting them or may affect others. The program also offers an network for these women to share thoughts or provide peer-based social support using anonymous text messages. FrontlineSMS is set up to auto-forward incoming text messages to a distribution group that includes frontline support agencies and clients who have chosen to subscribe to the service. The auto-forwarding process removes the callerID from the text and preserves only the contents, ensuring anonymity of the issuer. Text messages are also forwarded to a set of email addresses provided by the frontline agencies, as well as a protected Twitter account.

The MARS Lab is also involved in other projects using FrontlineSMS.  For example, it is working in collaboration with Simon Fraser University to pioneering the use of FrontlineSMS in combination with Ushahidi to explore the use of social media in campus health and safety.  This project is using FrontlineSMS to receive text messages from students and staff at both the University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University to report health and safety concerns on campus. The goal of the project is to better understand how text messaging can provide a low cost, low barrier means of reporting to encourage the campus community to help mitigate risks to health and safety on a university campus.

Furthermore, in early 2012 the MARS Lab will be launching a pilot project in partnership with LIRNEasia and the Sri Lanka Department of Agriculture to explore the use of text messaging to support Agricultural Extension Services in the Dambulla and Matale districts. This pilot will involve deployments of FrontlineSMS at three agricultural information centres and is also expected to include a deployment of FrontlineSMS:Radio with a local radio station to support audience interaction for one of the live agriculture talk shows.

It's great to see the diverse range of projects which the University of Alberta is supporting in their use of FrontlineSMS! This post was originally shared on the FrontlineSMS Community Forum. You can see the full original post and connect with Gordon on our forum here.

Reflections from Nairobi: FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi 'SMS to Map' Event

Last week FrontlineSMS held an event with Ushahidi, as previously reported on our blog here. The event was held in both Nairobi and London on the same evening, and the below is a guest post from Samanthat Burton who attended the Nairobi-based event.

"On November 7, 2011 a community of experts, techies and curious people gathered together for the event SMS to Map: Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to Tell Your Story. This event took place in two cities over the course of one evening: at the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya and at Goldsmiths University of London, UK.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend (and live-Tweet!) the Nairobi event. I also thought that people might be interested in hearing about the SMS to Map experience in more depth than 140 characters allow, so this post will give you a short overview of the Nairobi event and detail some lessons learned that stuck with me.

THE TOOLS

FrontlineSMS software allows users to send, receive and effectively manage large numbers of SMS messages. Ushahidi software uses crowdsourcing methodology to collect information, visualize data and create interactive maps.

Both tools are free, and when used together enable people to collect data using FrontlineSMS; and then visualize that data using Ushahidi. This can have powerful results, as projects where the two technolgoies have been used together for the promotion of social justice—such as mapping harassment in Egypt and tracking incidents of violence against children in Benin—demonstrate.

SMS TO MAP

The SMS to Map events were designed to provide a space for communities and individuals using (or interested in using) FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to meet, discuss and collaborate. What’s especially cool about SMS to Map is that it took place in Nairobi and London on the same evening. This meant that participants in either city could follow the sister event online (via #smsmap Twitter hashtag), which provided a great way to connect with a diverse group of people from around the world with similar interests.

The Nairobi event was at the iHub, and was a fantastic excuse for me to finally get over there. Presenters included:

Limo Taboi, finance manager of Ushahidi, who described the software as “a tool to capture the voices of people who otherwise would not be heard.” - Sharon Langevin of FrontlineSMS:Credit, who shared information on upcoming FrontlineSMS development and piqued my interest in an upcoming initiative focused on media. - Anahi Ayala Iacucci of Internews Network, whose presentation of the Zambia Disaster Simulation case study is what I want to focus on next.

LESSONS LEARNED: Zambia Disaster Simulation

For me, one of the most compelling parts of the evening was the presentation by Anahi Ayala Iacucci on the Zambia Disaster Simulation.

In June 2011, Iacucci was involved in a crowdsourcing workshop series in Zambia. At the end of the series, they organized a simulation to show how applying crowdsourcing tools to a natural disaster might look on the ground.

Laucci described four lessons learned that came out of this simulation. These lessons struck me as applicable beyond just FrontlineSMS or Ushahidi—to M4D, ICT4D and maybe even international development as a whole!—so I wanted to share them with you:

1. Preparation is key. The Zambia simulation showed how important it was to do a simulation. During the exercise, the teams encountered a variety of technical and non-technical issues that impacted their effectiveness. This underscored how important it is to make sure that users have the skills to effectively use the technologies and creatively solve problems that arise—particularly if they will be working in a situation requiring rapid response.

2. No cost does not mean no effort or no strategy. Just because FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi are free doesn’t mean that using them effectively is easy. For example, one of the major challenges that arose during the simulation was the sheer volume of SMS data coming in. When you’re gathering that much information, you need to have a solid strategy in place to manage it—and the human resources to put that strategy into place. Otherwise, you can end up with a lot of data and not a whole lot of action.

3. Security is all about knowing what you’re doing. It’s very high risk to use mobile technology in an oppressive regime: there’s always a way to track it. Take the time to consider all of the possible security risks and create a strategy to effectively manage them. The safety of your end-users and team should always be paramount. [If this point is of interest you can find out more in the FrontlineSMS User Guide on Data Integrity].

4. When people send you information, they expect you to do something with it. You need to make sure that the people you are asking for information understand exactly what happens after they send it to you. Communicate effectively to manage those expectations from the outset to ensure that people don’t expect you to do things that you don’t have to power to do.

IN CLOSING

Overall, I thought that SMS to Map was a great way to bring together people who share an interest in FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and use of technology for positive social change. It was a dynamic and informative experience, and I’m glad that I was able to be part of it!"

Samantha Burton is a communications and research consultant, with expertise centered on the not-for-profit, international development and higher education sectors. She currently works with Aga Khan University in Nairobi, Kenya, and has a great deal of interest (and an academic background) in putting appropriate ICTs to work for education and for international development.

This post was originally shared as part of TechChange's course on 'Mobiles for International Development'.

The Importance of Collaboration in Open Source Communities: FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi Event

By Florence Scialom, FrontlineSMS Community Support Coordinator

On the evening of Monday 7th November, FrontlineSMS co-hosted an event with Ushahidi called 'SMS to Map - Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to tell your story' (#SMSmap for all those on Twitter). This event turned out to be an inspiring demonstration of the enthusiasm people have about using open source technology for social change. Held in both the UK and Kenya on the same evening, the event provided an excellent opportunity for FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to share ideas with both new and familiar audiences. Hopefully this will be the beginning of new projects, collaborations and, ultimately, this will feed into new resources that can help our community of users too!

The ‘SMS to Map’ event was a global affair; kicking off at the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya, and later in the evening continued in London at Goldsmiths University. Both events heard presentations from FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi, as well as from community experts who have used these tools together in action for social change projects in various different countries and contexts across the world.

Speakers shared examples of a variety of different projects which had integrated FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi software, including the monitoring 2011 elections in Nigeria and mapping of harassment on the street of Egypt. Linda Raftree, of Plan International, did an excellent presentation to the London audience about a project which tracks incidences of violence against children in Benin using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi. Also at London's event Claire Wardle, who works with the BBC College of Journalism, engaged the audience by talking about her experience of using Ushahidi for mapping the UK tube strikes. Claire’s presentation helped to demonstrate the potential utility of tools such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS to be used in a many different contexts you wouldn’t immediately expect.

In Nairobi, the audience heard from some of the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi staff based there, as well as from Anahi Ayala Iacucci of the Internews Network, who has used FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi together and trained on integrating the tools. Nairobi's event also had a live tech demo showing how to synch the two software tools which had some last minute technical difficulties - as live demos always tend to! - but nonetheless worked successfully in the end and allowed the audience to learn some practical tech skills.

Overall, the 'SMS to Map' events in both London and Nairobi provided a way for people to learn more about both FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi software, and encouraged people to think about the ways they could use these software tools for social change in their own work. Through facilitating this event, we hope to build on existing collaborations and inspire more future uses of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi together. If you are using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi together and would like to share your use case with us, and / or suggest resources you would find useful please contact florence@frontlinesms.com and / or hleson@ushahidi.com.

You can check out some content from the ‘SMS to Map’ event below.

The live blog stream from the #SMSmap event, produced using ScribbleLive.

Pictures of the #SMSmap event on our Flickr site.

You Tube video of Laura Walker Hudson and Heather Leson welcoming people to Nairobi's 'SMS to Map' via video, and explaining the importance the collaboration between open source software providers:

I would like to take this opportunity to give huge thanks to all those involved in helping us with the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi 'SMS to Map' event. A special thanks goes to Cast London at Goldsmiths University for sponsoring the London-based event and to the iHub for hosting the Nairobi-based event too. We could not have held these events without their kind support.

I would also like to thank the many individuals who helped make the events happen including Anahi Ayala Iacucci (Internews Network) and Hamilton Juma aka Tosh (iHub Community Manager) for their excellent hosting of the iHub event, Dan Mcquillan (Goldsmiths) for his amazing support arranging the London event, and all of the FrontlineSMS & Ushahidi staff and volunteers who helped out.

And of course all of the wonderful speakers including Linda Raftree (Plan International), Claire Wardle (BBC College of Journalism), Linda Kamau (Ushahidi), Sharon Langevin (FrontlineSMS:Credit), Limo Taboi (Ushahidi), Anahi Ayala Iacucci (Internews Network), Heather Leson (Ushahidi Director of Community) and last but not least Laura Walker Hudson (FrontlineSMS Director of Operations). Many others were involved but I don't have space to mention them all here, so just a huge thanks to everyone else who contributed!

Two Cities, One Event: SMS to Map – Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to Tell Your Story

Want to know more about using mobiles for social change, crowd sourced mapping, and how the two can combine? Keen to learn more about FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi, and how these software tools can be used together to enable positive social change? If you have questions about these tools which you’ve never had the chance to ask then Monday 7th November is your chance, at upcoming event: SMS to Map: Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to tell your story. This exciting event will take place in two cities on one evening; at the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya, from 6-8pm EAT and then later on at Goldsmiths University of London, UK, at 7-9pm GMT. Both events will host presentations on FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi, and will also hear from some community experts who have used these tools together in action for social change projects in various different countries and contexts across the world.

There is a wealth of experienced speakers contributing to the event, including: Laura Walker Hudson (FrontlineSMS), Heather Leson (Ushahidi), Sharon Langevin (FrontlineSMS:Credit), Limo Taboi (Ushahidi), Anahi Ayala Iacucci (Internews Network), Linda Raftree (Plan International) and Claire Wardle (freelance trainer and researcher, currently working with the BBC College of Journalism). With this agenda the event will have something for novices and experienced techies alike! And if you'd like to come you can register here today!

FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi have been used together in many powerful and inspiring ways; to monitor elections in Nigeria; to map harassment on the street of Egypt; to track incidences of violence against children in Benin; to demonstrate and challenge incidences of human rights abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and these are just a few examples. FrontlineSMS provides users with the ability to send receive and effectively manage large numbers of SMS, and Ushahidi software enables information visualization, interactive mapping and information collection through crowdsourcing methodology. When used together the tools enable people to collect SMS data and then visualize it with powerful results, as the case study examples show.

The aim of this event is to provide a meeting space for the communities of those who use or are keen to learn more about both FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi software. FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi technologies often appeal to similar audiences: those supportive of open source software, and those working for social change in contexts where people may struggle to get their voices heard via other means. We’ve also got a similar ethos towards prioritising the importance of understanding people who use our tools, and being committed to building and supporting our community of users. And as if that wasn’t enough cross over both teams of developers work from the same offices in Nairobi, too! Through facilitating this event we hope to build on existing collaborations and inspire more future uses of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi together.

The event itself will be co-hosted by FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, the iHub (Nairobi, Kenya) and Goldsmiths University (London, UK). Many thanks to the iHub for hosting the Nairobi-based event and to Goldsmiths University of London for sponsoring the London-based event, as well as to all others who have helped pull this exciting event program together. We all look forward to seeing you there next week!

For more info and/ or to register now visit: http://smstomap.eventbrite.com/ To follow the event on Twitter use the hash tag #smsmap We will be blogging about the event, and hope to make videos of presentations available after the event too

A Crowd-Seeding System in Eastern Congo: Voix des Kivus

With thanks to Ushahidi for letting us re-post the below from their blog.

Guest blog post by Peter van der Windt, PhD candidate in Political Science at Columbia University focusing on Africa. Peter has been directly involved in Voix des Kivus from the start in 2009 when he presented the project (see video) at the International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009). More on Peter's research, teaching and background available here.

Voix des Kivus

A crowd-seeding system in Eastern Congo that uses cell phones to obtain high-quality, verifiable, and real-time information about events that take place in hard-to-reach areas. This pilot project is led by Peter van der Windt and Macartan Humphreys from the Center for the Study of Development Strategies at Columbia University.

The pilot

Atrocities in hard-to-reach areas – for example many areas in Eastern Congo – often go unnoticed because of the lack of accessibility, both due to poor infrastructure and to the simple fact that fighting makes it too dangerous to get close. The inability of international organizations and humanitarian NGOs to collect information under these conditions hampers the provision of assistance in a timely and effective manner.

There is fast growing recognition of the role that technology can play in addressing these problems. But a real challenge faced by many approaches is the difficulty of getting data that is not just real time, but representative. Columbia University (with support from USAID) began the Voix des Kivus pilot project in summer 2009 to assess the technical feasibility of a decentralized, representative, SMS-based information system in the region and to assess the utility of the program to participating communities and potential users. Presently (beginning 2011) the program is operating in a random sample of 18 villages from four territories of the war-torn province of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Phoneholders and the goal

It works like this. In each village participating in Voix des Kivus there are three cell phone holders: one representing the traditional leadership, one representing women’s groups, and one elected by the community. Holders are trained extensively on how to send messages to the system. They are provided with a phone, monthly credit, and a codesheet that lists possible events that can take place in the village. Sending messages to the system is free but it is also voluntary – while users do not have to pay for each message they do not get any financial rewards for sending content to the system.

For participating communities Voix des Kivus provides a system for creating histories, archiving testimonies, and communicating with the rest of the world about events that affect their daily lives. For researchers and practitioners working in the region the information gathered forms an important resource to learn more about the situation on the ground in hard-to-access areas.

Technology and the data

The technology for Voix des Kivus is cheap to set up and simple to use. Built on the freely available FrontlineSMS software, the system allows holders to send numeric or full text posts from almost any cell phone. On the receiving side a standard cell phone linked to a laptop linked to the internet comprise the necessary equipment. With other freely available software (R and LaTeX – our code is available upon request), messages received are automatically filtered, coded for content, cleaned to remove duplicates, and merged into a database. Graphs and tables are automatically generated which can then be automatically mounted into bulletins spanning any period of interest and with different levels of sensitivity. Translations of non-coded text messages (often from Swahili into French and English) are undertaken manually.

Over the last 18 months phone holders have sent thousands of pre-coded and text messages ranging from reports of attacks and abductions to reports of crop diseases and floodings. The constant flow of data from our phone holders is kept in a database and captured in weekly bulletins. Each Monday a bulletin is produced and disseminated that presents events that took place in the preceding week. These bulletins are shared with organizations that have received clearance from Voix des Kivus and its phone holders. The latter includes several development organizations based in Bukavu, DR Congo who can use the data to evaluate the situation on the ground throughout the region.

Crowseeding vs crowdsourcing

An important question for a system like this is whether the messages received can be trusted. Here we find the true value of crowdseeding. In most crowdsourcing approaches anyone can send information directly to the system. Crowdseeding works in a more restricted way with phone holders that are pre-selected, and only they can send in information. Crowdseeding has three main advantages for data quality: 1. The data is received from a representative set of areas; 2. All senders are known to the system and are in a  long term relationship with the Voix des Kivus program; 3. Because more than one holder is selected in each village “internal validation” is also possible. The system can also be used for sending information to holders and for engaging in more interactive forms of data collection. There are also disadvantages of this approach relative to crowdsourcing, the most obvious is that because of their relation with the program there may be concerns about the security of holders.

What we learned from the pilot

We have learned a lot from the pilot. The technical and social capacity is there right now. Interest in participating areas has been very great as witnessed by the steady stream of messaging. Technical barriers were also not as great as expected; solar technology can be used to power phones in the most remote areas and cell phone coverage is much greater than some maps suggest. Data quality appears good with fairly high levels of internal validation. Two questions though are still unanswered. First although we encountered no security concerns we do not know how safe the system would be for holders if it operated on a larger scale. Second, we don’t know whether this information will get seriously used. At the scale in which we have been operating many organizations expressed great interest in the concept and the data; but we do not know of any serious reactions from international actors to the messages coming in, including real time reports of attacks and abuses. Phone holders have continued to engage with the system despite the poverty of reactions, but we cannot expect that to continue forever.

Continuation?

After operating for more than  a year and a half as a pilot in Eastern Congo, the Voix des Kivus experience suggests that obtaining verifiable, high-quality data in real-time from these hard-to-reach areas is not only possible, but needs much less expense and oversight than previously thought. Our pilot is now coming to an end and Columbia is bowing out from Voix des Kivus. The big question we face now is whether and how to continue the system after the pilot, whether this should be run by a domestic group or an international group, whether this should continue as an open resource or as a resource tied to the operations of organizations that can respond. Please post your thoughts here.

For more information see: http://cu-csds.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Voix-des-Kivus-Leaflet.pdf and www.cu-csds.org

Fast Company: US State Department Is Trying To Make A Thousand Ushahidis Bloom

a href="http://www.frontlinesms.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Fast-Company.png">By E.B. Boyd, re-posted from Fast Company website "When the earthquake decimated Haiti last year, technologists around the world converged online to develop tools to help rescuers find victims and raise funds. Now the State Department wants to see if it can take that impulse and put it to work helping grassroots organizations tackle humanitarian problems around the world even when there isn't a horrible disaster to deal with.

To do that, the State Department is convening a series of “TechCamps” in different parts of the globe this year to bring together non-governmental organizations that know the problems, with technology experts who might have innovative ideas about how to tackle them....

“It’s a way to identify the next Ushahidi or FrontlineSMS and help them scale quickly,” Boly says."

To read this post in full visit Fast Company's website.

Learn more about our work: FrontlineSMS sister project, FrontlineSMS:Legal is helping vulnerable people gain access to legal services. Find out more on the FrontlineSMS:Legal website

Nigerians Mobilize for Free and Fair Elections

This post is the latest in the FrontlineSMS Mobile Message series with National Geographic. To read a summary of the Mobile Message series click here. By Florence Scialom, Community Support Coordinator, FrontlineSMS

"A group of Nigerian grassroots organizations and agencies have joined together to form ReclaimNaija, in an effort to provide the Nigerian electorate a way to report on the elections as they happen. ReclaimNaija documents how citizens are experiencing the elections by using FrontlineSMS to receive and send text message reports, and Ushahidi to visually map the election reports received. It is very exciting to see FrontlineSMS being used in this way, especially because one of the first public use cases of the software was during the last Nigerian elections in 2007. As Community Support Coordinator at FrontlineSMS I have had the privilege of speaking to Ngozi Iwere from Community Life Project, one of the promoters of ReclaimNaija, as well as others who have been involved in helping with and using the platform. I have learned about how Community Life Project are encouraging citizens from grassroots communities all over the country to use mobile technology to amplify the voice of Nigerian citizens, making their opinions impossible to ignore.

Amidst the confusion of date changes surrounding the Nigerian elections one thing remains clear; the people of Nigeria are ready to vote. The 2011 Nigerian elections got off to an uncertain start; with the National Assembly elections due on April 2nd 2011 having to be pushed back as a result of many problems, leading to the rescheduling of the whole two week election process. Amongst the commotion of date changes it is more important than ever for the Nigerian public to feel they have a way to speak out about any election problems they experience, and know they are being heard.

Over the years, elections in Nigeria have been surrounded by controversy. “Since the return to civil rule in 1999, all the elections conducted in Nigeria have been marred by massive fraud and violence,” says Ngozi Iwere.

It is clear speaking with Nigerian citizens about ReclaimNaija that people are keen to actively challenge the problems previously accompanying their elections. “On election days, citizens have been frustrated by a number of things; missing names, seeing ballot boxes stuffed or even stolen and other electoral fraud and yet being unable to do anything about this. This time however, is the time to speak out” says Femi Taiwo, a member of INITS Limited, a Nigerian company that helped set up the technical side of ReclaimNaija’s monitoring system.

ReclaimNaija was established to “enhance the participation of grassroots people, organizations and local institutions in promoting electoral transparency, accountability and democratic governance in Nigeria” Ngozi Iwere tells me. ReclaimNaija achieved this participation in large part through voter education forums for community and grassroots leaders spread across the 36 States of the country and the Federal Capital Territory. As Ngozi explains “engaging the leaders of community-based social networks ensured that information got across to a large segment of society, as we trained leaders to pass on the message to their membership and constituencies.” Thus popular participation has been central to ReclaimNaija’s monitoring platform.During the January 2011 Voters Registration Exercise, ReclaimNaija received 15,000 reports from the public over two weeks. It is important “to have an election monitoring service that aids troubleshooting to expose and document fraud” says Ngozi Iwere. The election registration process proved this; on receiving messages about problems such as lack of registration cards ReclaimNaija was often able to communicate with the electoral body, thus helping improve the efficiency of the registration process.

Providing the option to make election reports via text message has improved the scope of ReclaimNaija’s work, helping them to target grassroots communities more effectively.  “It is very important to have an election monitoring service that utilises tools that the average citizen is very familiar with” says Ngozi, explaining ReclaimNaija’s choice to provide the option for citizens to make reports via mobile phone.

Reflecting on the penetration levels that have made SMS such a powerful communications platform, Ngozi adds, “According to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Nigeria has 83 million active GSM lines.” Although the platform offered citizens other means of reporting, such as email, voice calls, Twitter, Facebook and direct reporting on the website, Ngozi explains they’ve found that “SMS was the most utilised medium both during the voter registration exercise and the aborted National Assembly Elections on Saturday 2nd April.”

The system clearly continues to be a powerful way for Nigerians to communicate throughout the recent date changes. The National Assembly elections, originally due on April 2nd 2011 were pushed back twice as a result of many problems, including lack of voting materials and staff absences at polling stations. The whole election process has now been re-scheduled. The National Assembly elections went ahead on 9th April, and they are due to be followed by the presidential poll on April 16th and the governorship election on April 26th.  Confusion over the election dates left some Nigerians suspicious about the validity of the elections.

“There has been a lot of scepticism surrounding the 2011 elections, even more so with the recent postponement,” points out Nosarieme Garrick, a Nigerian who has made use of the ReclaimNaija reporting system and also works for VoteorQuench.org, a social media effort to get young Nigerians engaged in the elections. Nosarieme has observed that some people are assuming that the problems are orchestrated attempts to facilitate rigging.

In line with this, one message received through ReclaimNaija during the first attempt at the National Assembly election said “more than half of registered voters here [in my voting station] couldn’t find their names… Is this an attempt to reduce the number of voters in Lagos?”

However, Nosarieme suggests that having a service like ReclaimNaija has meant people are able to act on their concerns. “Reclaim Naija is allowing eyewitness accounts from average citizens to be collected on the actual happenings during elections, and people understand that their reports are not falling on deaf ears.” Furthermore, although Nigerians were unhappy at the postponement, there is also hope around improving the voting process. Nigerian Femi Taiwo explains “if shifting the date was what it was going to take to get it right this time around… then the postponement was the right thing to do.”

Citizens have been able to report a wide variety of issues – including electoral malpractices, corruption and incidences confusion and unrest. One would-be voter, for example, sent a message on the day National Assembly elections were due to start, stating, “here at Umudagu boot, no staff or material or any sign there will be election. Hundreds of voters are loitering without accreditation and it is 9.00am.”

These citizen reports have become a valuable source of information for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), who are responsible for running the elections, thus representing the voice of the people to the authorities. ReclaimNaija collate reports and send directly on to the INEC in real time.

“If the INEC hadn’t seen these reports they would not have known about the level of problems being experienced by Nigerians; there would not have been this kind of proof” says Linda Kamau, an Ushahidi developer was in Nigeria to see the launch of ReclaimNaija system. There is clearly great power in ensuring the voices of the Nigerian people reach the authorities running the elections.

ReclaimNaija has been a great success so far, and in no small part due to the power of using SMS. As Ngozi Iwere explains, using mobile phones “puts the power of effective monitoring in the hands of the people.” Yet it is the Nigerian people themselves who are central to the process, and the technology is a facilitator for their participation. Ngozi makes clear “there is a deep yearning for change among the populace and citizens see this election as an opportunity to make that change happen.”

Mapping Harassment on the Streets of Cairo

With many thanks to Tactical Technology Collective for letting us re-post this blog from their site. One of the major challenges with sexual harassment and tracking is the difficulty of collecting accurate data. A lack of reporting can provide limited numbers and make the problem seem smaller than it is. A group in Egypt called Harassmap is creating a movement using a mashup, Ushahidi, to provide a place for women and other victims of sexual harassment to report instances of harassment on the streets of Cairo. Using a number of methods to gather the information, people can submit reports via SMS [using FrontlineSMS], email and a web form.

Harassmap says: “This tool will give women a way to anonymously report incidences of sexual harassment as soon as they happen, using a simple text message from their mobile phone. By mapping these reports online, the entire system will act as an advocacy, prevention, and response tool, highlighting the severity and pervasiveness of the problem. The project will utilise FrontlineSMS and the Ushahidi Engine.”

This project combines several digital tools into a mashup in order to an advocate against harassment on the streets of Cairo. Cairo is notorious for the amount of sexual harassment that occurs.

The Harassmap team recently held a volunteer community outreach day, where volunteers came together to learn about harassment issues, how to respond to harassment, and what steps to take. In addition, Harassmap has provided a space to discuss these issues and how to respond to them.

In an interview co-founder Rebecca Chiao said that managing the project on a volunteer basis is a very difficult task. Rebecca says, “we don't have any money, so we have to be creative. We love working on a volunteer basis, but it also means we all have other commitments like jobs and families, so it takes a lot of effort from us all to coordinate our little bits of free time to work together and make things happen.”

“I'm actually surprisingly happy with the outcome so far,” Rebecca said. “I think I would have changed the amount of time I spent on trying to figure out how to legally register HarassMap in the beginning. It took maybe 3 or 4 months and the requirements were prohibitive. So we ended up deciding to run with volunteers and not have any funding.”

Recently, they released data from the website where they analyse some of the information they’ve collected and some interesting trends appeared. Victims are not limited to Egyptian females, but included males, foreign women, and children. Harassment locations varied from the neighbourhoods of Cairo, to private cars while driving and including educational institutions such as schools and universities. Reports were collected from these neighbourhoods, in order of submissions: Downtown, Dokki, Al-mohandseen, Nasr City, Zamalek, Giza and Maadi.

For the Harassmap team, it isn’t just about mapping harassment on the streets of Cairo, but also about engaging the community. In addition to the volunteer day, they have hosted a workshop where young people were invited to come share stories of harassment and violence. The workshop discussed the relationship of gender and storytelling. They have also hosted outreach days where volunteers descend on the streets and encourage people submit reports.

And Harassmap isn’t stopping to celebrate their initial successes. They have weathered the Egyptian Revolution in style, and are capitalising on the positive energy in the streets. “I'm excited about the discussions we're planning now with the public to decide how we can carry Harassmap forward after the revolution,” Rebecca said. “There's an exciting spirit now and people have seen what it's like to not have harassment as a problem. So we're excited to see how we can build on that.”

In addition to growing in Egypt, their future plans see Harassmap going worldwide. Rebecca says, “We're also going to globalize this year, to about 10 countries hopefully! Wish us luck!”

TOOLS USED: Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, Facebook and Twitter

REACH: International. The story was picked up by bloggers and websites before being picked up by the international press.

COST: Most of the work was done pro-bono by tech partners, NiJel.

TIME: 100’s of hours

RESOURCES: We have 4 founding partners and our tech team - we're all volunteers. We also have about 100 other volunteers doing various things together.

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY: 4 out of 5. Using Ushahidi as a platform and building around it a community can be very difficult. Utilising Facebook and Twitter to build support around the initiative are basic tools, but require time and effort.

Pictures courtesy of the Harassmap website.

For more information on the Tactical Technology Collective, who originally posted this piece on their blog, visit their website: http://www.informationactivism.org

The Economist: Mobile Services in Poor Countries: Not Just Talk

Classifying mobile services in poor countries is not an exact science. Richard Heeks, director of the Centre of Development Informatics at the University of Manchester, sorts them by their impact on development. One category is services that “connect the excluded”. In their simplest form they provide information to those who would otherwise be out of the loop.

The sound of the crowd, texting

A... promising category is “crowdvoicing”. Ushahidi, founded by a group of activists in Kenya, is among its pioneers. After the country’s disputed elections in 2008, Ushahidi (which means “testimony” in Swahili) mapped reports about violence, most of them text messages, on a website. Now the organisation offers software and even a web-based service to monitor anything from elections to natural disasters. Similarly, text-messaging software called FrontlineSMS collects and broadcasts information.

This is an extract from an article in the Economist. Read the full article on The Economist website.

Invention. Collaboration. Integration.

The past couple of weeks have been particularly exciting for Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS. Independently they've been featured on the BBC and CNN websites, where their use in the DRC and Malawi respectively continues to gain traction. Jointly they've appeared in Forbes Magazine in an interview given by Ory (which was predominantly about Ushahidi, but given the enormous openness and spirit of collaboration between the two projects, the FrontlineSMS integration also made it to print). I've been a big fan of Ushahidi - particularly the people behind it - long before they started using FrontlineSMS as their local SMS gateway. I wrote about the project when it came to prominence during the Kenyan election crisis, and included it (along with FrontlineSMS and Kiva) in a discussion about rapid prototyping - something I'm a huge fan of - in one of my PC World articles:

The interesting thing about these three projects [Ushahidi, Kiva and FrontlineSMS] is that they all proved that they worked - in other words, proved there was a need and developed a track record - before receiving significant funding. Kiva went out and showed that their lending platform worked before major funders stepped in, just as FrontlineSMS did. And Ushahidi put the first version of their crowd sourcing site together in just a few days, and have reaped the benefits of having a working prototype ever since. If there is a lesson to learn here then it would have to be this - don't let a lack of funding stop you from getting your ICT4D solution off the ground, even if it does involve "failing fast"

Given Ushahidi's Kenyan roots (and those of the Founders) and its growing collaboration with FrontlineSMS, it was more than a little apt that last week saw three of us working together at a Plan International workshop near Nairobi (photo, above, of us at a separate Ushahidi developer meeting). Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich and myself didn't only present Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS as standalone tools to the Plan staff, but also demonstrated how easily and how well the two could work together. It was the first time the three of us had collaborated like this, and the first time that I'd seen a FrontlineSMS/Ushahidi sync running in the field. As Erik himself commented:

One of the basic tenants of Ushahidi's Engine is to make it open to extend through other mobile phone and web applications. The first one we've done this with is FrontlineSMS, which has worked out incredibly smoothly for us. Within a week of releasing our alpha code, we deployed Ushahidi into the DR Congo, and used a FrontlineSMS installation locally to create the hub for any Congolese to report incidents that they see. It has worked flawlessly...

During our presentation, Plan International staff were able to text messages into the FrontlineSMS hub at the front of the room, messages which were then automatically posted via the internet to the Ushahidi server. Erik approved some of the comments (not all!) via the online Ushahidi dashboard from the back of the room, and the attendees saw them appearing on a Ushahidi map beamed via a projector onto the wall. Although live demonstrations are risky at the best of times, the sync took two minutes to set up, and everything worked perfectly. For everyone behind the Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS projects, months (and in the case of FrontlineSMS, years) of hard work was paying off right before our eyes.

Graphic courtesy Ushahidi

For the workshop delegates, the potential of the two tools - independently and together - was clear, and ideas for their application in Plan projects across Africa continued to flow for the rest of the week. What's more, the benefit of working together to demonstrate the independent and collaborative power of the tools was clear to Erik, Juliana and myself. An innocent Tweet about "Ushahidi/FrontlineSMS Road Shows" brought back encouraging words, and even an offer to try and help make it happen.

There's much talk of collaboration and integration in the mobile space, and things are slowly beginning to happen. The recent establishment of the Open Mobile Consortium is further proof of a growing collaborative environment and mentality. What took place last week in Lukenya is just a small part, but one that I - and the team behind Ushahidi - are immensely proud to be a part of.

FrontlineSMS @ Netsquared/USAID

Two FrontlineSMS-based projects have been entered in the 2008 Netsquared/USAID challenge. The challenge is sponsored by The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and aims to find the best in mobile innovations for good. Voting is carried out by the NetSquared community, and fifteen finalists will be chosen. A panel of judges, selected by USAID, will then select the winners. The first place winner will receive a grant of $10,000, the two runner-ups will receive grants of $5,000 each. All three winners will have the opportunity to present their ideas to senior USAID officials, experts, and the public in Washington D.C.

The first FrontlineSMS-related project - Providing Business Opportunities Information to Farmers and Producers via SMS - aims to help Salvadorian agricultural and agro-industrial producers sell their products in local markets for better prices and obtain better profit margins, thus mitigating the effect of intermediaries or middlemen. The primary target is better marketing of vegetables and garden crops.

The system will allow producers and buyers to post "buy/sell" offers through SMS messaging directly to mobile phones, or through a call centre managed by the project (where operators will log information from semi-literate or illiterate farmers). Then summaries of these "classifieds ads" will be sent through SMS and e-mail to service subscribers. Additionally, communities of buyers/sellers with Internet access will be able to see these offers on a project website as well as through different RSS feeds via other web sites. As a result, producers and buyers will be able to interchange information and develop commercial activities directly without the need for intermediaries.

The second project - Mobile Application for Virtual Community Based Complementary Currencies - will develop a mobile phone m-banking application aimed at enabling the creation of community based complementary currencies. The application will operate in very much the same way as Wizzit and m-Pesa.

A complementary currency is a currency which operates in conjunction with the national currency. It does not replace the national currency - they merely create additional opportunities for the real economy to operate in times of greatly reduced credit and financial liquidity (for example, poor communities with under-employment). The idea, implementation and value of a creating a community-based complementary currency are well documented. There are over 1,900 community-based currencies around the world, including Ithaca Dollars, Time Banks, and the lesser known but extremely successful WIR based in Switzerland.

And finally - not a FrontlineSMS-related entry but a project which does use the software - is Ushahidi, a piece of open source software that solves communication and visualization challenges during crises situations through mapping and crowd sourcing. (Ushahidi hit the pages of the BBC News website today).

To vote for your favourite projects, visit the Challenge website.

Pocket messaging?

During the recent Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellows boot camp in Camden, Maine, I had the pleasure of sharing a cabin with Erik Hersman of White African, AfriGadget and Ushahidi fame. Despite knowing Erik for a couple of years or so, it was the first time we'd managed to sit down over a prolonged period and chat Africa, mobiles, innovation and technology. It was great and, as it turned out, productive.

Most evenings founds us blogging, Tweeting (@whiteafrican and @kiwanja), practicing our 5-minute Pop!Tech pitches, sharing stories and bouncing random ideas around. So it came as no surprise when we stumbled on a pretty cool idea for a hybrid piece of hardware (at least we think it's a pretty cool idea). If it existed, we thought, this thing could unlock the potential of platforms such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS yet further, and prove a real breakthrough in our efforts to lower the barrier to entry for organisations seeking to use SMS-based services in their social change work.

Messaging hubs like FrontlineSMS - currently being used by Ushahidi in the DRC to collect and forward local text messages to a remote server - require three things to work. Firstly, a computer with the software installed and configured; secondly, a local SIM card connected to a local mobile operator; and thirdly, a GSM modem or mobile phone to send and receive the messages. The GSM device is essential, as is the SIM card, but the computer is another matter. What if messaging software such as FrontlineSMS could be run 'locally' from a microSD card which slotted into the side of the modem? The software, drivers, configuration files and databases could all be held locally on the same device, and seamlessly connect with the GSM network through the 'built-in' modem. This would mean the user wouldn't need to own a computer to use it, and it would allow them to temporarily turn any machine into a messaging hub by plugging the hybrid device into any computer - running Windows, Mac OSX or Linux - in an internet cafe or elsewhere.

Right now this is only an idea, although we're going to see what we can do with it early next month when Erik and I, along with most of the Ushahidi team, happen to be in Nairobi, Kenya. Using Erik's extensive contacts in the Kenyan innovation space, we'll be looking to see if a prototype device like this can be cobbled together in a workshop somewhere. I'm willing to sacrifice a GSM modem in the name of progress.

If the guys can pull it off then there's a real chance we could get funding for wider trials. Things would then get really interesting not only for our own projects, but also for many others working in the same social mobile space, making rapid prototyping and the dissemination of tools much quicker and easier.

Cometh the hour. Cometh the technology.

For NGOs and developers alike, the ICT4D space can be a tough nut to crack. While NGOs generally struggle to find the tools they need to meet their particular needs, developers face the opposite problem - getting their tools into the hands of those who need them the most. Attempts to connect the NGO and developer communities - physically and virtually - continue to this day with varying degrees of success. There is no magic bullet.

Of course, bringing together the two parties in one place - conference room or chat room - is only a small part of it. Getting them to understand each others needs, often over a technologically-fuelled chasm, can be another. While one side may approach things from a "technology looking for a problem" angle, NGOs often have it completely the other way round. One of the boldest attempts in recent times to join the non-profit/developer dots took place in February 2007 in the boldly titled UN Meets Silicon Valley conference, where the United Nations met up with a bunch of Silicon Valley companies to explore how technology and industry could bolster international development. Lower-profile events take place far more regularly, often in the form of 'user generated conferences'. One such gathering - yesterday's BarCampAfrica - aims to bring "people, institutions and enterprises interested in Africa together in one location to exchange ideas, build connections, re-frame perceptions and catalyse action that leads to positive involvement and mutual benefit between Silicon Valley and the continent of Africa".

Having worked for many years in the non-profit sector, particularly in developing countries, I've seen at first-hand the kind of challenges many face, and their frustration at the lack of appropriate ICT solutions available to them. I've also been on the developer side of the fence, spending the last three years building and promoting the use of my FrontlineSMS messaging platform among the grassroots non-profit community. Unfortunately, despite what you might think, seeing the challenge from both perspectives doesn't necessarily make finding a solution any easier. Getting FrontlineSMS, for example, into the hands of NGOs has become slightly easier over time as more people get to hear about it, but it's been a very reactionary process at a time when I'd much rather be proactive. No magic bullet for me.

Sadly, for every ICT solution that gains traction, many more don't even see the light of day. While some may argue that those who failed probably weren't good enough, this isn't always the case. Take Kiva as a case in point. In the early days Matt and Jessica Flannery were regularly told by 'experts' that their idea wouldn't work, that it wouldn't scale. They didn't give up, and today Kiva is a huge success story, connecting lenders - you and me - to small businesses in developing countries the world over. Since forming in late 2005 they have facilitated the lending of over $14 million to tens of thousands of entrepreneurs in some of the poorest countries in the world.

A key turning point for Kiva was their decision to switch from business plans to 'action' plans, getting out there and building their success from the ground up. Some of us would call this "rapid prototyping", or "failing fast". Whatever you choose to call it, it's an approach I firmly believe in. In places like Silicon Valley getting it wrong isn't seen as a bad thing, and this encourages a "rapid prototyping" culture. Sadly the story is very different in the UK.

Some projects - Kiva and FrontlineSMS among them - are based on experiences gained in the field and the belief that a particular problem can be solved with an appropriate technological intervention. Of course, before any ICT4D solution can succeed there has to be a need. It doesn't matter how good a solution is if people don't see the 'problem' as one that needs fixing. In the case of Kiva, borrowers were clearly in need of funds, yet lenders lacked access to them. With FrontlineSMS, grassroots non-profits were keen to make use of the growing numbers of mobile phones among their stakeholders, but lacked a platform to communicate with them. These two initiatives worked because they were problems that found a solution.

The ICT4D space is exciting and challenging in equal measure, and by its very nature practitioners tend to focus on some of the most pressing problems in the most challenging regions of the world. Whether it's a natural disaster, a stolen election, human-wildlife conflict, a crushed uprising or a health epidemic, elements of the ICT4D community spring into action to either help co-ordinate, fix, or report on events. Interestingly, sometimes it can be the events themselves which raise the profile of a particular ICT solution, or the events themselves which lead to the creation of new tools and resources.

In 2006, Erik Sundelof was one of a dozen Reuters Digital Vision Fellows at Stanford University, a programme I was fortunate enough to attend the following year (thanks, in large part, to Erik himself). Erik was building a web-based tool which allowed citizens to report news and events around them to the wider world through their mobile phones. This, of course, is nothing particularly new today, but back then it was an emerging field. During the final weeks of his Fellowship in July 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon in response to the kidnapping of one of their soldiers. Erik's tool was picked up by Lebanese civilians, who texted in their experiences, hopes and fears through their mobile phones. The international media were quick onto the story, including CNN. Erik's project was propelled into the limelight, resulting in significant funding to develop a new citizen journalism site, allvoices, which he runs today.

In a similar vein, it took a national election to significantly raise the profile of FrontlineSMS when it was used to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections in 2007. The story was significant in that it was believed to be the first time civilians had helped monitor an election in an African country. As the BBC reported, "anyone trying to rig or tamper with Saturday's presidential elections in Nigeria could be caught out by a team of volunteers armed with mobile phones". Although FrontlineSMS had already been around for over eighteen months, its use in Nigeria created significant new interest in the software, lead to funding from the MacArthur Foundation and ended with the release of a new version earlier this summer. The project is now going from strength to strength.

One of the most widely talked-about platforms today also emerged from the ashes of another significant event, this time the troubles following Kenya's disputed elections in late 2007. With everyday Kenyans deprived of a voice at the height of the troubles, a team of African developers created a site which allowed citizens to report acts of violence via the web and SMS, incidents which were then aggregated with other reports and displayed on a map. Ushahidi - which means "witness" in Kiswahili - provided an avenue for everyday people to get their news out, and news of its launch was widely hailed in the mainstream press. Putting Ushahidi together is a textbook study in rapid prototyping and collaboration. In the past few months the project has also gone from strength to strength, has been implemented in South Africa to monitor acts of anti-emigrant violence, won the NetSquared Mashup Challenge and was runner-up in the recent Knight-Batten Awards.

The interesting thing about these three projects is that they all proved that they worked - in other words, proved there was a need and developed a track record - before receiving significant funding. Kiva went out and showed that their lending platform worked before major funders stepped in, just as FrontlineSMS did. And Ushahidi put the first version of their crowd sourcing site together in just five days, and have reaped the benefits of having a working prototype ever since. If there is a lesson to learn here then it would have to be this - don't let a lack of funding stop you from getting your ICT4D solution off the ground, even if it does involve "failing fast".

Of course, not everyone should rely on an international emergency to raise the profile of their project, and it wouldn't be wise to bet on something ever happening, either. But when it does, the obvious lack of a solution to an emerging problem often rises to the surface, creating an environment where tools which do exist - whether they are proven or not - are able to prosper for the benefit of everyone.

When actions DO speak louder than words

Winston Churchill once famously remarked that it was "better to be making the news than taking it. To be an actor rather than a critic". But there are times when this simplifies, and trivialises, the complementary roles that 'actors' and 'critics' can play. Half-a-century on, modern technology has empowered 'critics' in ways Churchill could never have imagined.

In 1984 a BBC news crew, accompanied by reporter Michael Bourke, travelled to Ethiopia and brought news of a growing humanitarian crisis to the worlds' attention. "A biblical famine in the 20th Century" and "The closest thing to hell on Earth" was how he described it. The international community were shocked into action, and the following summer saw Live Aid - Bob Geldof's massive mobilisation of the music industry which helped raise hundreds of millions for the famine victims. Michael Bourke - 'critic' turned 'actor'.

Today, modern-day blogging is creating mini-Michael Bourke's the world over. Human rights violations, environmental vandalism, political killings, oppression against citizens, animal cruelty and unlawful detentions make the news from all corners of the globe, made possible by brave souls empowered by mobile and internet technologies. The line between 'actor' and 'critic' is becoming increasingly blurred, if it exists at all anymore. Recent events in Kenya - which have spurned the creation of Ushahidi.com - is a perfect case in point.

A few short days ago, good friend Erik Hersman (who Blogs as the widely read and highly respected White African) aired his frustration at the lack of news coming out of the country from the man and woman on the street. In "It's Not About Us, It's About Them", Erik noted:

"While blogging, emails, Twitter and the internet are doing a great deal of good getting the news out of what’s going on in Kenya to the rest of the world, I find myself troubled. You see, the communication that needs to be happening is at the grassroots level. Everyday Kenyans do not have access to any of these services. Let’s put our minds and capabilities towards solving real problems for people beyond the technologically elite"

True to his word, just five days later saw the launch of Ushahidi.com, a site which allows Kenyans to report acts of violence via the web and SMS, incidents which are then aggregated with other reports and displayed on a map. Ushahidi - which means "witness" in Kiswahili - provides an avenue for everyday Kenyans to get their news out, and news of its launch has been widely hailed in the mainstream press (and the Blogosphere, funnily enough). Putting Ushahidi together is a textbook study in rapid prototyping and collaboration, and Erik takes a huge amount of credit for blurring the 'actor' and 'critic' distinction yet further by pulling his finger out and actually doing something. As he says, when all the dust settles in Kenya, he doesn’t want to be one of the ones saying “I should have done something”.

From a personal perspective, Bloggers such as Erik have been hugely supportive of kiwanja's work, without which there would have been little chance of initiatives such as FrontlineSMS and nGOmobile ever getting off the ground. nGOmobile alone has generated interest from over seventy grassroots NGOs, all of whom are now in with a chance of winning equipment to run their own text messaging services. FrontlineSMS has empowered NGOs in over forty countries from all corners of the globe. Essential to this has been a dedicated band of supporters, including White African, ZapBoom, Tactical Tech, ShareIdeas, Textually.org, Ore's Notes, Total Tactics, Black Looks, Saidia.org and 160Characters, among many others.

Whether or not we're 'actors' or 'critics' - and whether or not it really matters - we all have a valuable role to play. Ushahidi shows us just how valuable that role can be.