Mobile App Development

How we made FrontlineSync

How we made FrontlineSync

This year we deployed our Android SMS gateway app — FrontlineSync — to public beta. We decided to build FrontlineSync to make it easier for our users to connect the power of FrontlineSMS to the GSM network. Connecting to the mobile network can be a barrier to users, so we wanted to build a resilient and easy to use platform that would work everywhere.

The View from 100,000

The View from 100,000

Here at FrontlineSMS, we’ve been making software for a long time. When we first released Version 2 of our software, a little over a year ago, we were one of a few SMS management platforms available- one of even fewer that was free and open source. At the time, we were proud to have around 25,000 downloads and an active user community. You can imagine our surprise when we checked our download numbers last week and learned that FrontlineSMS has been downloaded more than 100,000 times- more than 75,000 times in a little over a year. We were so excited, we got a cake. You have to understand, when things get serious at FrontlineSMS, we get serious about getting a cake.

Kenya: From the ‘phone booth’ to widespread mobile adoption in Silicon Savannah

Kenya: From the ‘phone booth’ to widespread mobile adoption in Silicon Savannah

I had my first mobile phone in 1999, a metallic blue Motorola M3888. Its street name was “phone booth” because it was the cheapest mobile phone available, even though it was a luxury. It cost 14,000KES ($160) – a gift from my father bought during a Safaricom Valentine’s Day special. I could make calls - for 40KES (50 cents) per minute, and send SMS, and that was it; I loved that phone!

Emerging Explorer project makes Buckminster Fuller finalists

FrontlineSMS has been selected as one of only four Finalists in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, the prestigious annual design science competition. Named “Socially-Responsible Design’s Highest Award” by Metropolis Magazine, the Challenge awards $100,000 to support the development and implementation of a whole systems-based solution that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.

By Sarah George, Florence Scialom and Nsonje Siame

FrontlineSMS has been recognized for bringing the communication revolution to poor and remote regions, through harnessing the power and reach of mobile phones. The software works without the Internet, is easy to implement, simple to operate, and free to download.

Results from a FrontlineSMS user survey, held at the end of 2010, help to illustrate efforts to design software to work for “100% of humanity.” In the survey 84% of users said they found our software easy to use.* Results also demonstrated that FrontlineSMS is being used in over 70 countries, and is particularly useful in areas of the world where other forms of communication can be difficult to access. One FrontlineSMS user said:

I was using FrontlineSMS to communicate with administrators, principals, and teachers in 50 secondary schools. In the area I was working landlines and faxes were largely unheard of, postal services unreliable, and even road access was poor. FrontlineSMS allowed me to coordinate communication between these schools to organize various school events and programs

At its core, FrontlineSMS software turns a laptop or desktop computer and a mobile phone or modem into a mass messaging platform, empowering users to gather and share information of any kind, in any place. The software forms part of a strategy that grassroots organizations around the world can adopt to leverage mobile technology for the greater good. FrontlineSMS focuses on reaching the “last mile” by designing the platform to take advantage of basic mobile phones already in the hands of billions of people throughout the developing world.

While the core platform is use-agnostic, the FrontlineSMS team is committed to incubating sector specific solutions. For example, sister projects work with FrontlineSMS to confront challenges in access to healthcare, education, financial credit, legal representation, and media. There are clearly many other sectors in which FrontlineSMS can be utilized, too. In the recent user survey examples emerged from over 15 sectors, including conservation, human rights, and agriculture, amongst others.

For FrontlineSMS, winning the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller prize would provide critical support for developing Version 2 of the software; an upgrade that will improve and extend core functionalities, making the software even more user friendly and interactive. Version 2 will help users of FrontlineSMS do more with the software than ever before.

Finalists were chosen by BFI’s multi-disciplinary review team, made up of 11 distinguished jurors. These include Valerie Casey, founder of Design Accord; David Orr, writer and professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College; Andrew Zolli, producer of PopTech and Danielle Nierenberg, Project Director of State of World 2011; and Sim Vanderyn, visionary ecological design pioneer.

On Wednesday, June 8th FrontlineSMS will be presented to jury members and an audience in New York City. On Friday, June 10th the Winner will be revealed at a conferring ceremony. Both events will take place at The Graduate Center, CUNY. More information about the event is available here.

About the Buckminster Fuller Challenge

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is the premier international competition recognizing initiatives which take a comprehensive, anticipatory, design approach to radically advance human well being and the health of our planet’s ecosystems. The 2011 Semi-finalists are providing workable solutions to some of the world’s most significant challenges including water scarcity, food supply, health, energy consumption and shelter. The Challenge is a program of The Buckminster Fuller Institute which aims to deeply influence the ascendance of a new generation of design-science pioneers who are leading the creation of an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity. For more information on the 2011 Finalists visit the Challenge website. You can visit the FrontlineSMS page here.

* The FrontlineSMS user survey received responses from 174 people

CityCampLondon: thoughts on SMS and appropriate tech

This weekend has been spent at CityCampLondon, in a fog of coffee and beer, on Brick Lane and at the Kings Cross Hub, thinking and talking about using tech to make London better. I wanted to post a slightly more coherent version of my thoughts here.

At the Mobile in the City panel, I reflected on the UK's digital divide, which I've posted about here before, but took it further to suggest that the same factors preventing people from getting online might militate against them having a smart phone. As of January 2010, there were 11.1 million smart phones in the UK, 22.6% of active mobile contracts. Over three quarters of us still use 'dumb' phones. And while 31% of us browse the internet on our phones, 18% access social media and 13.7% access the news, 90.3% use SMS, or text messaging. Ok, so smartphone adoption is growing by an amazing 70% year on year, but I would argue that it's likely that the most marginalised and most vulnerable in society will be the last to see the benefits. Put simply, there's still an excellent case for using SMS to interact and communicate with people we struggle to reach using other technologies.

An example of this would be people who are rough sleeping, or homeless. A friend told me that when she volunteered in a soup kitchen, the most common request was for her to charge the batteries of people's pay-as-you-go phones behind the counter. Three soup kitchens, and one soup VAN, have downloaded FrontlineSMS to keep in touch with their regulars by text. Others are running helplines for teens, and domestic violence sufferers, or using SMS as an adjunct to treatment and support programmes for people with depression. People are collecting survey information, even reports of bird sightings. I'm searching right now for someone in the UK to house and maintain a simple FrontlineSMS hub to support activists monitoring evictions of Gypsies and Travellers in Essex (if you can help, let me know - no experience or tech knowhow required! Read more about this here.)

What these ideas have in common is that they aren't dependent on introducing new tech of any kind - just using technologies and communications media that people already have in their pockets, to enable them to do what they were doing before, but reaching further and doing better. The questions I've been asking people as we've gone through the third day here at the Hub Kings Cross are - who are you trying to reach? And what are they already using? Do you understand the social context? How boring I must sound.

Events like CityCamp and OpenTech are great but can be all about the tool. My plea this weekend has been to put the end user first. I'm not saying you shouldn't get excited and make things, but there is a gap between innovation (coming up with a tool) and implementation at scale (widespread use and social impact), and the bit in the middle is the human element. Make things easy, both for end users and for the organisations trying to reach them - keep technology simple and recognisable, keep the need for training to a minimum, keep barriers to access AND to implementation low. This remains a challenge for FrontlineSMS as we head towards our sixth year, but one we're determined to crack.

The corollary to this is that too often these events result in new organisations trying to cover similar ground in a new way. How frustrating that established players are so seldom flexible enough to pick up new ideas and adapt their existing models to take advantage of them. The pitches we're hearing right now (I'm writing this from the shadows as braver and more brilliant people than I pitch NESTA and Unltd for funding to bring their newborn ideas into the world) are strikingly diverse in style and approach, and in the problems they seek to attack. If there's something I'm disappointed about this weekend, it's that more people from the public sector haven't stuck around to understand how simple technologies can transform how they interact with their clients.

Thanks to Dominic Campbell and the FutureGov team for a great event and for bringing together a diverse bunch for three days - and thanks for inviting FrontlineSMS!

Celebrating the ecosystem approach

It was a cold evening last October when I heard from National Geographic that we’d won an Emerging Explorer Award for our work in mobile. Seven months is a long time to keep a secret, but now news is out it will hopefully be the ideal platform to help us spur further development of FrontlineSMS, and increase interest in wider circles around the potential for simple, appropriate mobile technologies to solve some of the more pressing problems people face in the world today. Although it’s wonderful to get this kind of recognition, it also makes it a good time to clarify a few key points about the work we're doing.

Exploring

First, I believe National Geographic took a bold step picking a mobile project as one of their Awardees. Explorers are usually associated with more physical, tangible acts such as climbing, diving, flying, discovering and so on. Trying to come up with a new approach to applying mobile technology to a problem is a different way of thinking about “exploring”, and I think it raises a number of very interesting questions. Something for a future blog post, no doubt.

Approaching

Second, first and foremost I believe the Award is recognition of our approach. Over the past five years – yes, it’s almost been that long – we’ve developed a clear methodology based on “handing over our technology and stepping back” (as one conference delegate once put it to me). The National Geographic article summed it up perfectly:

The key, Banks believes, is a hands-off approach. While his website provides free support and connects participants worldwide, users themselves decide how to put the software into action. "FrontlineSMS gives them tools to create their own projects and make a difference," Banks notes. "It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to reach their full potential through their own ingenuity. That’s why it’s so motivating, exciting, and effective"

If we look at what’s happening today – with very little of it controlled by us – we’re seeing something of an ecosystem developing around FrontlineSMS. Sure, the software isn’t perfect and it’s constantly improving and evolving, but people are being drawn to it because it allows them to do what they do, better. It’s something they can build on top of, something they know of and to a large degree trust, and something which allows them to immediately tap into a wider community of users, donors and supporters.

It can act as a springboard for their own ideas and visions in a way other solutions aren't. And only a few of these people are technical, and that is key. “Focus on the users and all else will follow” is something we seem to come back to again and again, but without it – and without users – all we have left is a bunch of code and a Big Idea.

The FrontlineSMS ecosystem is witnessing the creation of increasing numbers of plug-ins - medical modules, microfinance modules, mapping tools, reminders and analytical tools among them, and we’re hearing more and more from established, well-known entrepreneurial organisations who have chosen to implement and integrate FrontlineSMS as one element of their work. Laura, our new Project Manager, is just beginning to reach out and make sense of this activity, much of which we currently know very little about. Allowing users to take your platform and just run with it is empowering for them, but creates a unique set of challenges for us.

Recognising

Third, and finally, are the recipients of the Award. I may have been fortunate enough to have got the fledgling FrontlineSMS concept off the ground way back in the summer of 2005, but it’s been a truly monumental, global effort getting it to where it is today, recognising – of course – that we still have a long way to go. From bloggers to donors, from developers to journalists, from testing partners to users, people have stuck with us and supported us in ways I would never have imagined.

Sure, the software can do some pretty neat things, and thanks to Alex and Morgan (our two developers) it continues to improve. But what really draws the majority of people to our work is the approach. For five years we’ve remained 100% focussed on the end user, and have not been distracted by newer, sexier emerging technologies. People really seem to get that. We’ve also concentrated on building, and on remaining positive. There is much wrong in the world, but that should never stop anyone making a contribution, however small.

So, a big thank you to National Geographic for putting their faith in our work; to Laura, Alex, Morgan and Josh, our dedicated core team; to the MacArthur Foundation for taking a gamble on a guy living in a van in 2007, and to the Hewlett Foundation, Open Society Institute, HIVOS, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Omidyar Network for helping us continue to develop and grow.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has supported us, spoken about us, written about us, promoted us and helped us, and thanks to the users for taking our software and doing some truly inspirational things with it. We owe all of this to you.

Ushering in our Project Manager

The FrontlineSMS team is growing. In this Guest Blog post, Laura Hudson - the new FrontlineSMS Project Manager - tells us why she came on board, what she intends to do in her new role, and outlines some of her early thinking. "It's exciting and a bit nerve-wracking to represent something as revolutionary as FrontlineSMS at the best of times, but two-and-a-half weeks in to a new job as Project Manager for FrontlineSMS, attending the World Bank's Innovation Fair on Moving Beyond Conflict was an eye-opening experience. The Fair was attended by innovators and technical experts from all over the world, and was a great opportunity to swap stories and questions, make connections, and plan future collaborations.

Five years on from the first version, and thanks to Ken's tireless work to raise awareness, FrontlineSMS is a familiar name to many in the mobile and social entrepreneurship field. Still others had heard about it and were keen to try it, and I met at least one implementing partner I hadn't encountered before!

Lots of our discussions had to do with what you do after you've had the great idea - how to get it from concept to reality, to operating 'at scale'. So much of the success of FrontlineSMS has had to do with just two things: a great concept; developed with the support and input of a strong user community. I wanted to reflect a bit on what we're doing to continue to develop along these lines, and we'll hear more in future from our lovely developers, Alex and Morgan, on the next few months in the FrontlineSMS labs.

In some ways FrontlineSMS is already scaling - the software has been downloaded from our website over 6000 times, and we have a  number of organisations working directly with us to build on the FrontlineSMS brand and software to develop plugins and implementations in specific sectors - including FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit. The field is so fast-moving and collaborative that new possibilities pop up every day - so much so that it could be hard to settle down and focus on our core business - developing the software.

In the coming months, we're going to work on a strategy that will set our direction for the next five years, and support an operational plan for the next two years. We'll be looking at how to consolidate our support to users (more on that in a second) and what we should be looking at next - picture messaging, for example, or examining what sort of interface might be useful with online services like Mxit in South Africa.

Since the beginning, Ken's mantra has been 'support the users, and all else will follow'. Priorities for the next year include improving our support to our users, and providing more online resources and step-by-step help, such as decision-making trees and thematic guides. And as for any organisation, it's important to know what we've achieved.

As a service provider, supporting those who deliver on the ground rather than delivering ourselves, this will take the form of figures and case studies on how many projects using FrontlineSMS, how it's going, and if possible, approximately how many people they are reaching. To find this out we'll be contacting users directly, running competitions, and linking users direct to donors in innovative ways - watch this space.

It's an exciting time for us and for all those out there helping our project and others like it to achieve great things and hopefully, and most importantly, help to make a real difference to people all over the world".

Laura Hudson Project Manager www.frontlinesms.com

Mobile Design. Sans Frontieres.

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).

For further posts on the subject see the "Mobile applications development" section of this blog, which includes a 10 minute video on the topic.