A bit more about FrontlineCloud: announcing a new blog post series

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.

This seemed like a good moment to expand on some of the ideas in Sean’s post from launch day, about how Cloud fits into our vision and worldview. So, we’ll offer a series of posts about various aspects of the project, explaining how putting the flexibility and power of FrontlineSMS on the web isn’t a departure from our values and mission - it’s critical to them. This one just tries to set the stage a bit, and give you an idea of what’s coming.

The future of FrontlineSMS

Amid the positive feedback, we’ve had a few questions, too. In particular, many of you wanted to check that our much-loved desktop platform, FrontlineSMS, would continue to be supported. For those still wondering, the answer is yes! We will always work to keep FrontlineSMS free and open source, and in fact we’re working on a new release before the end of the year.

FrontlineSMS and FrontlineCloud already give you the same interface whether you’re working online from Mumbai, or offline in rural Orissa. Soon, you’ll be able to connect those two systems, so that you can aggregate your data, and see how the teams you’re supporting in the last mile are using FrontlineSMS. We’ll be writing more about what that means in a future post.

Breaking down barriers, empowering networks

“We built FrontlineCloud because we believe that solving problems starts with finding better ways to work together.”

Our mission is to lower barriers to social change through mobile. The idea for FrontlineSMS stems from the recognition that although SMS is the most widespread digital platform the world has ever seen, and is used by businesses, service providers, and NGOs everywhere to manage people and information, the global mobile market makes it far too hard to use professionally. The barriers to setting up a low-cost, accessible SMS system at any scale are just too high. FrontlineSMS tackles this on a number of fronts - by being easy to use, by needing only commonplace hardware to run, and by not requiring the Internet. But we were finding that some of our users had slightly different needs.

Some want to coordinate meetings or groups using SMS, even if they’re not in the same country, so we built a hosted version, accessible anywhere. Many have headquarters and satellite offices, who would like to work together on the same mobile campaign, or at least see what the other is doing, so our system needed to accommodate them and their network. And some simply don’t want to have to install the software, so that they don’t need to think about the computer it’s running on, and keeping it powered, malware-free, and connected to the Internet or a mobile network. Providing a hosted platform makes it easier for those people to get texting.

A tweet saying 'you asked for it, so we built it'
A tweet saying 'you asked for it, so we built it'

Building for a multi-channel world, and a multiplicity of users

FrontlineSMS came out of a time when the biggest need for SMS was in places where nothing else works. Now, most organizations need to think about customers and beneficiaries who use a variety of different platforms, from radio to SMS to Facebook. We’re building for that across the product set, working on new APIs and connections, and exploring integrations with new mobile communications platforms.

We’ve always had the hubris to try to build something that works anywhere, for everyone, and as the digital divide widens, globally, we’re being increasingly kept on our toes to achieve this. Our emerging business model and our developing product set has to accommodate everyone from tiny NGOs in Côte d’Ivoire, to hierarchical businesses running vast networks and communicating with thousands of customers, needing to deal with mobile money in one country and airtime top-ups in another, and with branches that look very much like our tiny west African NGO. Our ecosystem of complementary products means that we can deliver value to different types of user, whether or not they’re online or somewhere in between - a system that works across infrastructural gaps.

Open source, open data

I was struck recently by something Cloudera’s Chief Strategy Officer said in an article celebrating 22 years of Linux - that open source as a credo came from a commitment to peer review of code, and evolved into valuing openness in all its forms. He suggested that open data standards and solid APIs continue those same values of free data and user choice.

In many ways I believe we’ve been on that journey with FrontlineSMS. We originally shared the FrontlineSMS source code with the community because it seemed like the right thing to do. We’re committed to continuing to do that, not to leverage free programming capacity, but so that users have the opportunity to adapt what we’ve built (although we deliberately build so that a non-technical user can get up and running easily). Launching a Cloud platform has meant thinking about how we want to deal with customer data, and as importantly, what you would want to do with it - but portability and privacy (keeping your data free, as in speech) are emerging must-haves very much linked to the debates around openness and transparency of data transfer and storage. More on that in later posts, too.

This won’t be everything we write about - a lot of our posts are inspired by the kind of excellent argument in the pub that our British origins make us proud of - but these are some of the issues we’re already working on.

I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved in barely more than a year - launch of FrontlineSMS to FrontlineCloud, to whatever comes next (watch this space)! I couldn’t be more in awe of our team, and I can’t wait to keep working to build more and better tools and keep making data more mobile.