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.


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.


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.


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'.