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.
We want to say thank you to all of our users and supporters for a tremendous and inspiring 2013. Your ideas, input, and investments helped us achieve so many accomplishments over the past year: we topped 100,000 downloads with FrontlineSMS. We launched FrontlineCloud. We received a Google Impact Award for our work with our partner Landesa to secure land rights for 80,000 families in India.
FrontlineCloud has been out in beta for just over a month, and we’re proud to have over 450 users signed up already, sending and receiving thousands of messages. The newest addition to the Frontline product set has had an incredibly warm and supportive reception on social media and in the many lovely emails we’ve received from friends, users and donors. To everyone who has retweeted, liked, emailed and signed up to look around, a huge thank you.
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.
Here at FrontlineSMS, we’ve been making software for a long time. When we first released Version 2 of our software, a little over a year ago, we were one of a few SMS management platforms available- one of even fewer that was free and open source. At the time, we were proud to have around 25,000 downloads and an active user community. You can imagine our surprise when we checked our download numbers last week and learned that FrontlineSMS has been downloaded more than 100,000 times- more than 75,000 times in a little over a year. We were so excited, we got a cake. You have to understand, when things get serious at FrontlineSMS, we get serious about getting a cake.
Here at FrontlineSMS, we love data. Like, a lot. If data had its own Facebook page, we’d ‘like’ it and if we took a picture with data out one night, we’d probably make it our profile picture. Data empowers, and we’re all about empowerment o/. In fact, to empower people is the why for the what we do. One thing we’re always wanting to know, of course, is how we are doing. Well we SMSed our friend data to find out – Welcome to the 2013 FrontlineSMS survey results post!
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:
The FrontlineSMS team is pleased to announce a new level of premium support and consultancy services to help users design mobile engagement strategies, build capacity for professional adoption and automate communication workflows. Engaging people on new platforms can be a complex process and it can be a challenge to find a recipe for success. New technologies mean new communication patterns which are inherently personal and constantly changing.
"The Curry Stone Design Prize was created to champion designers as a force for social change. Now in its fourth year, the Prize recognizes innovators who address critical issues involving clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice or peace". Yesterday was an exciting day for us as we announced FrontlineSMS had won the prestigious 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. This award follows closely on the heels of the 2011 Pizzigati Prize, an honourable mention at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and our National Geographic "Explorer" Award last summer. It goes without saying these are exciting times not just for FrontlineSMS but for our growing user base and the rapidly expanding team behind it. When I think back to the roots of our work in the spring of 2005, FrontlineSMS almost comes across as "the little piece of software that dared to dream big".
With the exception of the Pizzigati Prize - which specifically focuses on open source software for public good - our other recent awards are particularly revealing. Last summer we began something of a trend by being awarded things which weren't traditionally won by socially-focused mobile technology organisations.
Being named a 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer is a case in point, and last summer while I was in Washington DC collecting the prize I wrote down my thoughts in a blog post:
On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.
More recently we've begun receiving recognition from more traditional socially-responsible design organisations - Buckminster Fuller and Clifford Curry/Delight Stone. If you ask the man or woman on the street what "socially responsible design" meant to them, most would associate it with physical design - the building or construction of things, more-to-the-point. Water containers, purifiers, prefabricated buildings, emergency shelters, storage containers and so on. Design is so much easier to recognise, explain and appreciate if you can see it. Software is a different beast altogether, and that's what makes our Curry Stone Design Prize most interesting. As the prize website itself puts it:
Design has always been concerned with built environment and the place of people within it, but too often has limited its effective reach to narrow segments of society. The Curry Stone Design Prize is intended to support the expansion of the reach of designers to a wider segment of humanity around the globe, making talents of leading designers available to broader sections of society.
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, 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:
We trust our users - rely on them, in fact - to be imaginative and innovative with the platform. If they succeed, we succeed. If they fail, we fail. We're all very much in this together. We focus on the people and not the technology because it's people who own the problems, and by default they're often the ones best-placed to solve them. When you lead with people, technology is relegated to the position of being a tool. Our approach to empowering our users isn't rocket science. As I've written many times before, it's usually quite subtle, but it works:
My belief is that users don’t want access to tools – they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some "cloud". This may sound petty – people wanting something of their own – but I believe that this is one way that works.
What recognition from the likes of the Curry Stone Design Prize tells us is that socially responsible design can be increasingly applied to the solutions, people and ecosystems built around lines of code - but only if those solutions are user-focused, sensitive to their needs, deploy appropriate technologies and allow communities to influence how these tools are applied to the problems they own.
Further reading FrontlineSMS is featured in the upcoming book "Design Like You Give a Damn 2: Building Change From The Ground Up", available now on pre-order from Amazon.
By Ryan Jones, FrontlineSMS Grants and Fundraising Manager “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
The above quote, from famed designer Buckminster Fuller, sums up the motivation behind ‘Architecting the Future,’ three days of learning, sharing, and celebrating innovation for social change. I was proud to represent FrontlineSMS as one of four finalists for this year’s Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an award recognising ‘bold, visionary’ initiatives that are trying to solve humanity’s most pressing challenges. While we didn’t come away with the prize, it was certainly an honor to know the jury considered our work ‘a truly comprehensive, anticipatory, integrated approach to solving the world's complex problems.’
FrontlineSMS was certainly in good company alongside the other extraordinary finalists, who all demonstrated comprehensive, specific design solutions to important problems. The overall winner of the Challenge, Blue Ventures, take a multifaceted approach to conservation and community development in Madagascar’s coastal communities, by tackling root causes of overfishing and poverty in the region. The remaining two finalists, the Rainforest Foundation’s participatory mapping project in the Congo basin and Tara Ashkar+, a creative technology-driven literacy program in India, take similar approaches, engaging whole communities and systems to maximize the impact, durability, and sustainability of their work.
Here at FrontlineSMS, you could say that we approach whole-systems thinking in a slightly different way. Our work identifies with a common context in which NGOs around the economically developing world work; recognising both the incredible rise of mobile phones and the concomitant challenge that poor infrastructure can still pose. Within this context FrontlineSMS provides a tool that skillfully and elegantly ‘just works’, and thus we can leverage the power of existing tools and the work of existing organisations many times over. Buckminster Fuller would have called a tool like FrontlineSMS a ‘trimtab,’ after the small flaps on ships and planes that can help create large changes in direction with very little force.
One particular Challenge juror noted the appeal of FrontlineSMS software was in its ubiquitous utility as opposed to what it actually is; and we agree. Today, FrontlineSMS is being used in many more ways than we ever could have imagined, and the dedicated people using it are a source of boundless inspiration.
That same inspiration was on display during the conference, serving as a reminder of why I love our work so much. While Al Harris, the founder of Blue Ventures, presented his work, my mind starting racing with ways he could use mobile phones and FrontlineSMS: better data collection of fish and octopus stocks, better community engagement on conservation issues, the list goes on and on. I hoped to convince him of their value after the event ended. Turned out Al didn’t take much convincing. Once I finished our presentation, he leaned over to me and said, “I’m downloading your software tonight.”
For more information on the Buckminster Fuller Challenge visit: http://challenge.bfi.org/
As occasionally happens, Ken and I find ourselves on opposite sides of the world at conferences this week. Ken is at Mobile Web in Africa 2010, in Johannesburg, and I'm hereby asking him to tell you all about it here when he gets a minute. o/ I'm at Design for Persuasion in Ghent, Belgium, with a room full of people who've never heard of FrontlineSMS - this is only the second time I've done this kind of event, but it's something we're committed to doing because that's how we get the word out to new audiences. As I did after the Digital Indaba in July, I thought I'd post the gist of my talk here. You can also listen to an AudioBoo which I recorded in a far more coherent manner than the actual talk, shortly afterwards.
Sidenote: I showed, as I always do, Ken's favourite diagram of 'social mobile's long tail'. Related but different is the persuasion map we're all developing (read: wrangling over) live at the conference, at BJ Fogg's suggestion. It maps technologies along axes showing prominence versus usefulness. SMS has already moved from unknown to well known, and from useful to not useful, a couple of times. Will be interesting to see where it ends up - or who gives up first...
Since I joined the team back in March I've spent a lot of time emailing our users and begging them for stories and feedback about their experience. You can read a version of this plea here! Many of you have given generously of your time and energy to write and tell me your thoughts on the platform and the challenges of implementing using SMS.
Something that surprised me a bit was the low proportion of users who were utilising more than the most basic functionality in FrontlineSMS. Many, perhaps 90-95%, are using only the functionality up to and including keywords to automatically respond to incoming SMS, or simply organise incoming SMS. But not all are aware of additional plugins like the Reminders module and the enormous potential of Medic's PatientView. Even auto-subscribing people to groups via SMS is a step beyond what many have time to set up.This might be controversial - do people disagree? Am I getting a false picture?
If not, the low take-up of advanced features is probably to do with capacity and time - both for many of the small community-based organisations who are our target user, if we have such a thing, and for larger NGOs and international organisations. Indeed, we know at times people struggle to get basic FrontlineSMS functions working effectively and meshing well with their existing work. We're tremendously excited about the potential of new functionality and technology, and small groups of users will be able to make excellent use of them - but for the majority of users, basic troubleshooting, support and advice are critical.
In the coming weeks we'll be working on our plans for the software in 2011 - stay tuned for more from this from our Lead Developer, Alex. Our role in providing user guides and resources, advice and support, and even training is something we're also looking carefully at. As ever, we'd welcome your thoughts.
Although I find myself intrigued by the convergence of computer science, human computer interaction (HCI) design and international development, it's not often that I find myself in a room of experts. They're just not places I tend to mix, most likely because I have no professional IT qualifications, let alone a computer science degree, and I've done most of my own software design off-the-cuff, much to the dismay of people who hoped there was a robust process behind it. Last August I got my first taste of the very real challenges that the computer science world faces when it comes up against the equally real challenges of international development. The meeting - convened at UC Berkeley - was an eye-opener for me to say the least, and as I left I blogged about how thankful I was that it wasn't me who had to come up with the answers. You can read that post here.
A little later in the year I was invited to speak at the First International Workshop on Expressive Interactions for Sustainability and Empowerment, held at one of Vodafone's London offices. The topic of conversation was similar, but here the focus was on how to build mobile tools that work in difficult, challenging, 'foreign' environments. Following my talk I was invited by the Editor of Interfaces, John Knight, to contribute an article to the next edition of their magazine.
For the article I teamed up with Joel Selanikio, co-founder of DataDyne.org and the creator of the EpiSurveyor mobile data collection tool. It made sense working with Joel for a number of reasons. Not only have I known and admired him and his work for some time, but Joel is first and foremost a paediatrician. For him - like me - understanding the problem takes priority over the technology, consideration of which should always come last. FrontlineSMS and EpiSurveyor have both evolved from time spent in the field - observing, experiencing and understanding before designing, developing and building.
You can read our thoughts on the process - "Ten things you might want to know before building for mobile" - in the current edition of Interfaces magazine (PDF, 2.5Mb).
One of the things which inspires me most about FrontlineSMS is how it inspires and motivates other people. I've met students, developers, out-and-out techies, non-profits, academics, members of the media, graphics designers - even members of the public - all of whom seem to resonate with the history, objectives and DNA of what we're trying to do. If showing people what's possible is the only legacy we leave, I'm more than happy. But I sense it will be a little more than that. Last Friday I visited the London offices of Wieden+Kennedy - the incredibly talented people behind the o/ FrontlineSMS logo. I was expecting a sit-down meeting, a brief chat, a coffee and overview of where FrontlineSMS - and other kiwanja projects - were all heading. What I didn't expect was this.
Four young supercharged members of W+K's Platform initiative had spent the previous two-and-a-half days turning a decent-sized meeting room into a living and breathing FrontlineSMS/mobile/Africa/kiwanja nerve centre. The walls were plastered with stickies and posters and images of ideas and clever concepts, all themed around "Where could we take FrontlineSMS?".
After two of the most stimulating hours imaginable, I left a little shaken - in a good way. Feeling the excitement and passion of four incredible young individuals - Will, Yuki and Teemu (pictured, below, and Neslihan who joined us remotely) - who had put so much of their hearts and minds into this, I was reminded what an incredible initiative FrontlineSMS has become, and how blessed we are to continue to attract so many passionate and talented people to the cause.
The timing of last week's session was also perfect. In three days time we start work on an exciting new project - in partnership with Accenture and the GSM Association - and promotion, branding and marketing was the missing piece. Enter Will, Yuki, Teemu and Neslihan (and Lucy and Sam, who run the Platform initiative). Adding W+K to our impressive line-up of partners not only strengthens our capacity yet further, but reinforces our belief in the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to solving some of the trickier challenges of the social mobile world.
Will, Yuki, Teemu, Neslihan, Lucy, Sam - welcome aboard! o/