Most days, we roll out of bed and drink a bunch of coffee and then spend the next ten hours diligently writing code and emails and grant applications. Not exactly the rock star lifestyle, but we're terrible at playing the guitar and have gotten kicked off of karaoke stages, so we understand.
Njenga Kahiro, Kinship Conservation Fellow and member of the Zeitz Foundation, started the Laikipia Unity Cup in 2010 when he decided to combine environmental education and a football tournament. Laikipia is a countyin central Kenya where conflict between warring communities and stripping of natural resources are both fairly common. Njenga, with the help of his foundation, put together football teams from each region , usually combining young citizens of quarreling communities, and host a tournament that included matches, educational theater, and local conservation projects.
On the same day that the Global Journal announced us as their pick for “#1 Tech NGO in the world”, my laptop died. As my coworkers celebrated our newly-bestowed honor, I relished the irony of my technological failure and felt what has come to define my time working in the non-profit world: humility.
As anyone who has experienced it will tell you, working at FrontlineSMS is no ordinary job. The ethos and values of the organisation produce a unique work atmosphere, and the many talented and enthusiastic people involved make it an inspiring place to be. I feel very lucky to have been Community Support Coordinator here for the last year and a half. The team asked me if I would like to write something for this blog, for which I’ve written so often, to reflect on what I have learned during my time working with FrontlineSMS.
The many uses of SMS
My role involved managing an increasingly active user community and helping to represent the many ways FrontlineSMS software is being used across the world. By documenting these user cases I have got to know many of the wonderful organisations and individuals in the FrontlineSMS user community. I have been continually struck by how many organisations out there are making a constructive impact despite their limited resources. Knowing that FrontlineSMS helps is incredibly rewarding - supporting election monitoring in Nigeria, providing maternal healthcare information in the Philippines, or sounding the alarm against harassment on the streets of Egypt, real-world demonstrations of the software’s impact are powerful. All this is being made possible by effective management of text message communication through FrontlineSMS.
Technology is only part of the story
Simple in concept yet brilliant in its design and application; FrontlineSMS provides a software that allows users to take advantage of SMS, the world’s most widespread digital platform, to manage communications in diverse – often low infrastructure – environments. Yet, as I quickly discovered, the technology is only a part of a successful implementation. Through working on a range of program-related user resources – such as case studies and an SMS campaigning guide – I learned that program design considerations are central to effectively using communications tools for social change. When planning to use a tool such as FrontlineSMS there is a vital need to consider critical delivery planning – outreach, messaging, integration, translation, verification and impact monitoring – in order to run a successful program. In addition, it is also essential to ensure sensitivity to behavioral and cultural factors in any given context in which a program is run; as we often put it in the FrontlineSMS office, ‘context is king’.
Grass roots change, globally
Many social change organisations are using FrontlineSMS to improve their communications at the grass roots and – as a result – increase the impact of their work. Being able to measure this impact is central to demonstrating the power of the software. An aspect of FrontlineSMS’s work which is simultaneously a strength and a challenge is our lack of ownership over implementations: making the software available as a free and open source download has undoubtedly contributed to FrontlineSMS’s wide usage, yet those who download the software have no obligation to let the FrontlineSMS team know how – even whether – they are using it.
We have tackled this challenge in a number of ways: conducting user surveys and download data analysis, researching in-depth case studies, and, most recently, launching a new monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework. It was through this kind of analysis and observation of our users that the FrontlineSMS team came to a new perception of the software’s impact.
Although there are undoubtedly large scale implementations of FrontlineSMS, my work has focussed on supporting the many users who are successfully running programs at the community level; really getting to know their target beneficiary audience and effectively measuring and adapting their work over time. FrontlineSMS scales horizontally rather than vertically - rather than a few massive implementations, we see thousands of users working at the community level all across the world, having enormous collective impact.
The user still comes first
One of the most amazing things for me to experience during my time at FrontlineSMS is getting to know many passionate people who are prepared to give their time and energy to help others; this includes the amazing team, the strong user community, and the many FrontlineSMS Heroes who have given their time to help keep things running successfully. It has been a joy to work alongside such a dedicated bunch of people!
I have been particularly impressed by how FrontlineSMS users are willing to help support each other. Through the user community forum and the growing global trend of user meet-ups, there is a clear desire amongst users to see others succeed; to share lessons learned and build valuable connections with others seeking to use FrontlineSMS for positive social change.
I am going to miss a lot of things about working at FrontlineSMS, especially the people. I feel privileged to have been able to work with the community, and observed the amazing work so many people are doing in the mobile for social change space. Moving forward, there is a wonderful new Community Support Manager, Sila Kisoso, taking over from me. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Sila in the FrontlineSMS Nairobi office, and I know she will do an excellent job with supporting the FrontlineSMS community. I am moving on to study for my Masters in Anthropology and Development at Leiden University in the Netherlands, but I will be sure to stay in touch with the FrontlineSMS team and continue to support the community in any way I can. I would like to thank the FrontlineSMS team, all FrontlineSMS Heroes and the user community for helping make my time working with FrontlineSMS so special!
To stay in touch with Flo you can find her on Twitter via @Flo_Sci. Watch this space for more from our new Community Support Manager, Sila, coming soon! o/
- An incredible 97% of people said they would recommend our software to others.*
- People are using or testing FrontlineSMS in over 80 countries across the world. Most of those using or testing the software are working in Africa - 46% of respondents - but an increasing number – 29% are working in Asia, compared to 23% of users having impact in Asia shown in last year's survey.
- The top countries in which survey respondents are using and testing FrontlineSMS are, in order: Kenya, the Philippines, Malawi, India and Pakistan.
- This year 78% of respondents reported working for local, national or international NGOs, with the remainder being academics (22%), independent researchers and testers (8%), governments (8%) and for-profit organizations (17%).*
- 40% of respondents said they were using FrontlineSMS to communicate with project participants or beneficiaries; 39% with staff and volunteers; 30% with the general public; and 5% other organizations *
- 79% of users found FrontlineSMS easy or somewhat easy to set up, and only 1% found it difficult (around 20% of respondents did not answer this particular question).
More detailed analysis
Between this year and last year’s survey the types of organizations responding have remained predominantly non-profit actors – NGOs and INGOs – and the largest percentage of those using and testing the software are still working in Africa. However, there is a growth of our user base in Asia, which is exciting to see. Kenya remains the most common country where FrontlineSMS is being used and tested, with the Philippines close behind at second highest.
In this year’s results we can also see that our software continues to be used in a wide range of sectors, the most popular being education and healthcare. This mirrors last year’s results - but there is also increasing interest shown this year in using FrontlineSMS in emergency response and preparedness, activism and campaigning, mobile finance, and the media. We are particularly excited to see the growth in areas where we have sector-specific projects.
We asked people about how the software is helping them to communicate. We found that nearly half of users are using FrontlineSMS to connect with project participants and beneficiaries, which is perhaps to be expected. Interestingly, though, nearly as many users are using the software to engage with staff and volunteers. In many cases we have seen SMS used in the same way that you might use email – to organize programs, coordinate meetings and appointments, send out alerts, even to submit monitoring and evaluation reports. Its clear FrontlineSMS is now being used as a professional communications tool in many contexts.
We’re aware that there is still plenty of room for improvement. There were many suggestions for our software and user support in survey responses. Users suggested new features, such as integration with more internet SMS aggregators, easier importing of bulk contacts, and a more adaptable plug-in interface for faster, easier use of our software with other tools - happily this fits brilliantly with our upcoming release, FrontlineSMS Version 2 (watch this space for more news on this in coming weeks!). Respondents also proposed new ways for us to support users, including more help with devices and more user resources including case studies, practical guides on using the software, and guides on specific challenges (such as data integrity). These are all ideas we will build upon in our strategic planning moving forward.
Despite challenges and constructive criticism, an astounding 97% of people said they would recommend our software to others. One respondent said;
“in my experience the software is easy to use and has an active community who are passionate about the work they're doing and eager to help. And it's free”.
It’s great to get this kind of positive feedback from our users, so thank you to everyone who contributed to the survey! o/
As those who regularly read this blog will know, here at FrontlineSMS we’re always looking to increase understanding of our user community. Listening to the experiences of those using our software helps us to find out if we are effectively meeting their needs, and enables us to identify the most important improvements needed in our software and user support. Crucially, hearing from our users also helps us to measure the impact of our own work in terms of how our software is being used and the difference it is making in the real world. If you’d be interested in telling the FrontlineSMS team how you are using FrontlineSMS then please do feel free to contact us and connect with our team and other users on our community forum, too!
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Huge thanks to FrontlineSMS Hero Matthias Ambruster for his help in analysing our survey responses.
*All data is based on 129 survey responses. Not all questions in the survey were mandatory. Percentages at times total over 100% for questions where users could give more than one answer.
“Focus on the user and all else will follow,” has been one of our main mottos here at FrontlineSMS ever since the original version of our software was built in 2005. Yet it is undeniable that, as we gear up for a big year in 2012, the face of the FrontlineSMS user is more diverse than it was when we first started out. Ken Banks, the Founder of FrontlineSMS, has often said to the team here that he was excited when one person downloaded FrontlineSMS back when he first made the software available; at the end of 2011 the number of people who had downloaded FrontlineSMS passed the 20,000 mark.
As our user base continues to grow, our user-focused ethos is more important to us than ever. We strongly believe that our direction should continue to be guided by our passionate, innovative, and richly varied user community. That is why we would love to hear your views in our latest FrontlineSMS user survey. We want to hear your feedback on our user resources and our software, so that we can feed your opinions into our planning for 2012. Even if you aren’t using FrontlineSMS actively at the moment, your opinions still matter to us, and we’d love to hear any views and experiences you’d like to share about FrontlineSMS in our survey.
We have seen our software used in so many different ways – election monitoring, maternal health support, citizen engagement, education, coordination of humanitarian response, to name just a few – and in so many places – Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, Cote d’Ivoire, Canada, the UK are just some of the locations we’ve documented use of FrontlineSMS in within the last year. This is both very exciting and somewhat challenging for us; we would like to ensure that FrontlineSMS software and user support continues to meet the needs of our users, whatever those users now look like. The fact that our user community is growing makes it even more important for us to hear feedback, so we can serve increasingly varied and changing user needs.
And we’d like to say thank you - fill in the survey, and you’ll be in with a chance of winning a limited-edition FrontlineSMS T-shirt. For the next four weeks we will also be choosing one lucky survey respondent each week to win an unlocked, FrontlineSMS-compatible USB GSM modem. In addition, we will choose another lucky prize winner to get a copy of the well-known book, SMS Uprising, signed by our very own Ken Banks. (All those who have filled out the survey already will also be in with a chance of winning these prizes). So, as well as the opportunity to feed in to our 2012 strategy you could win some very exciting prizes! All this for just 5 minutes of your time - what have you got to lose?
There are many faces we see regularly in our user community. Those who are part of a small community based group, seeking to keep people informed about valuable yet hard to access information. Those who are part of a large NGO seeking coordinate communication with disparate staff, monitor the effectiveness of their work, and hear feedback from the communities they serve. Those starting a sustainable business in a developing economy, and wanting a way to keep in touch with all key stakeholders in areas where there is little or no internet access available. And even those in economically developed countries, who are working to engage vulnerable communities via the accessibility of SMS.
Do any of these descriptions sound like you? If so it would be great to hear your views and experiences with our software and resources. If you don’t feel you are represented in the above list (which is certainly not exhaustive), then we need to hear from you too! If you’re using or have thought about using FrontlineSMS then please fill out our survey and let us know who you are!
Last year’s survey results helped us to shape the major release of our software due out in 2012 – FrontlineSMS Version 2 – and it also helped us to understand that our users want to connect with each other more, and learn from each others’ use cases. Hence we worked throughout 2011 to document more use cases on our blog and have engaged members of our community to volunteer with us as FrontlineSMS Heroes, too. Recently one of our Heroes, Tom Marentette, has helped start an exciting trend of user meet-ups, certainly something we will seek to continue to build upon in 2012.
Now the team here is wondering, what will this year’s survey tell us? You can shape the answer to this question by filling out our survey, and helping us better understand the diverse face of our FrontlineSMS user community! o/
As we approach the end of 2011, there is opportunity for us to reflect on a successful year at FrontlineSMS, reveal some news and reach out to you - our users - to share your thoughts through our survey so that we can carry on innovating. Recently we sent out a personal message from FrontlineSMS Founder, Ken Banks, via our e-newsletter list and we wanted to share it again here with readers of our blog:
It's been a while since I was last in touch, and much has been happening in the world of FrontlineSMS. As we approach the end of another year I thought now might be a good time to reach out, share some exciting news, and ask you one small favour.
Organisationally, the past twelve months have seen considerable growth. We now employ a dozen staff across three continents - Africa, Europe and North America - and the number of software downloads has exceeded the 20,000 mark, powering non-profit projects in twenty sectors in over 70 countries around the world. We've also had a successful year redesigning the platform (further news on that in the new year) and have also been working on versions of FrontlineSMS tailor-made for our :Radio and :Credit projects and their users. As the year closes out we've also managed to secure new funding to allow us to continue to develop the platform, and to continue to support you - our users - in the work that you do.
Share your views on FrontlineSMS
That leads me onto my request for a small favour. It would be great if you could share your views and experiences with FrontlineSMS in our 2011 user survey. Our online survey is crucial in helping us understand how FrontlineSMS is being used, problems you may have had, things you like, areas we can improve, and the impact the platform is having on you and your work. We've managed to continue to provide FrontlineSMS (and full technical support) free to everyone because we have been able to share this information with donors and supporters, helping them to be better informed about the positive impact their software is having.
In today's mobile world it's crucial that we understand our impact, and that we're able to communicate that to the people who support us. This is how we're able to support you. To give you an idea of how useful it is for us to know about your experiences, check out the results from the survey we ran earlier this year. This information has been crucial in helping us secure funding to continue operating into 2012, so thank you to everyone who contributed.
It would be great if you could take a few minutes of your time to fill out our 2011 user survey which will help us continue our work, which in turn helps you continue yours.
Win a FrontlineSMS T-shirt and feature in our National Geographic blog series!
As a show of appreciation, if you complete the survey you'll be in with a chance of winning a limited edition FrontlineSMS T-shirt! There may also be the opportunity to have your project featured on our National Geographic Mobile Message blog series, giving you the chance to share your work with a global audience of millions.
So please take a moment to fill out our user survey today!
Thanks so much for your time, and for the work that you do for millions of people in need around the world. We're excited and honoured to be working with you, and look forward to continuing our partnership into the new year.
It's hard to believe, but six years ago this month FrontlineSMS was quietly released into the world. There was no press release, no fuss, no fanfare and certainly no funding. "Project SMS" was conceived earlier that year, renamed "FrontlineSMS" a few weeks later, and then cobbled together on a kitchen table in Finland over the summer. For a long time promoting and supporting it was simply a hobby as I continued my life as an ICT consultant. It's an understatement to say that I'm surprised at where we are today. Over fifteen staff across three continents, thousands of users in over 70 countries around the world, and a tool which has found a home for itself in almost all fields of international development. None of that was ever part of the plan back in October 2005.
I'm equally as proud of the roots of FrontlineSMS as I am of the tool itself. I've been involved in international development in one form or another for the past 18 years, and have seen at first hand things that have worked, and things that haven't. There's much that's wrong in the sector, but also a lot that's right, and for me personally FrontlineSMS embodies how appropriate and respectful ICT4D initiatives can be run, both on a personal and professional level. There's very little I'd do differently if I started it all over again.
As I wrote earlier this month after news of our Curry Stone Design Prize broke:
Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it’s deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We’ve worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, be applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it’s this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It’s also arguably at the heart of it’s success.
These core values, built up over six years, remain central to our work. Here's just a few:
Each and every one is important to us: Putting users ahead - and at the heart - of everything we do, striving for a positive interaction with anyone who comes into contact with our work, aiming to inspire others whilst respecting a diversity of views, always reaching for better, fostering a positive "anything is possible" attitude, making sure we continue to put people - and their needs - ahead of the aspirations of the tech community, managing expectations both internally and for our users, and finally - constantly reminding ourselves why we do what we do.
As we continue to grow as an organisation, maintaining and reinforcing these values will be an increasingly important part of not only who we are, but who we become.
We're not far off a year since the launch of the revised version of FrontlineSMS, and great progress has been made on many fronts. One of the challenges we've faced is that there's no manual for what we're trying to do, so it's been something of a shot in the dark much of the time. The past, present (and no doubt future) of the software remains heavily influenced by the organic spread of the tool - NGOs finding it by "discovery" and adopting it in their own projects, for themselves, by themselves. Leaving them do a little bit of the work themselves helps create the ownership so crucial for a project to succeed, I believe.
Looking at the map of users today, we have a quite amazing spread. Along with expected hotspots in Africa and South/Central America, FrontlineSMS has been "discovered" by NGOs in as far-flung places as the Maldives, Bermuda and the Faroe Islands. How they got to hear about it I'll never know. Maybe not knowing is half the fun.
The online user community also continues to grow and remains very active, and is showing encouraging signs of become self-supporting. As of today we have 478 members and, yes, some of them do like to customise their pages! To date around 20% of NGOs who download the software end up joining the community (downloads to date comes to 2,118), which is not a bad return. We have to do a bit more work on this, I think, as we intend to in the coming months. We also need to focus more on the growing interest from the developer community, who still lack a proper, fully decorated home. Work starts on that any day now.
Of course, there is still much we don't know - how we measure the impact of FrontlineSMS, how many of the users who download the software that go on to use it with any regularity, what additional challenges there are to adoption over and above the ones we know, and so on. But we'll keep working at it. We have the funding - for now, anyway - and we have the incredible support of a growing community of NGOs, bloggers, activists, developers, academics, observers and, of course, users.
(Note: A selection of FrontlineSMS Guest Posts are available, written and submitted by users themselves).
I don't usually work on planes, even eleven hour transatlantic flights. But this time I thought I'd give it a go - maybe do something a little bit more interesting than reading reports or doing email. So I plumped for this. I've wondered for a while what the FrontlineSMS footprint is, you know, where it's been used since the launch just over two years ago. So I did the grunt work on the plane and have just thrown it onto a map. And here it is.
The totals are quite impressive. It turns out that FrontlineSMS is being used in 41 different countries, and in some cases by more than one NGO in that country. I counted over 60 uses of the software, too. From helping blood donor clinics and human rights workers to promoting government accountability, keeping medical students informed about education options, providing security alerts to field workers, the capture and exchange of vegetable (and coffee) price information, the distribution of weather forecasts, the co-ordination of healthcare workers, the organising of political demonstrations, the carrying out of surveys and the reporting and monitoring of disease outbreaks. Oh, and election monitoring, of course. There are many more. I knew the tool was flexible but, for the first time having this information available has been a real eye-opener.
The latest version of FrontlineSMS is being developed as we speak, with work on a new website underway. We have a fantastic product, a great vibe in the non-profit world, increasing publicity and a great donor in the MacArthur Foundation. There are also plans afoot for an exciting global launch at a major GSM Association event in Cannes next May. Momentum is at an all-time high, and proposals for the next phase of development, starting mid-2008, are already out.
From nothing, apparently, comes something...