Social Change in the Developed World

Piloting SMS for Legal Aid

Piloting SMS for Legal Aid

Legal aid in the United States is broken. Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the country's primary funder of legal aid organizations, estimates that about half of eligible clients are turned away from the organizations it funds, and about eighty percent of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans remain unmet.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Tomorrow has arrived, but not for everyone. A digital divide persists, even in seemingly connected countries like the United States, where some twenty percent of the population, or sixty million people, don’t have Internet access at home. Those on the wrong side of the divide—the poor, the elderly, the geographically dispersed— are already marginalized, and tend to have a more critical need for specialized legal services, whether to resolve a conflict, acquire a land title, seek asylum, or escape an abusive situation.

Sexual Exploitation Outreach with Text Messaging: Introducing Project Backpage

Sexual Exploitation Outreach with Text Messaging: Introducing Project Backpage

The University of AlbertaMARS lab and the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) have been using FrontlineSMS in a ground-breaking pilot to assess the impact of using SMS to engage women who are trafficked and exploited in Edmonton, Canada. They have very kindly collaborated with us on an in-depth case study, looking at how the system was designed and set up, its impact, and what's happening next.

FrontlineSMSat7: KOFAVIV Supporting Haitian Women

In the fourth of our seven blog posts celebrating the month that FrontlineSMS turns 7, Sean Martin McDonald, CEO of our social enterprise, reflects on howKOFAVIV, a women's organization in Port-Au-Prince, supports women affected by rape and domestic violence via SMS, in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian Earthquake. 



"My favorite thing about working at FrontlineSMS is just how commonly we’re exposed to people doing inspirational things to make their communities stronger. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a community that has needed more strength than Port-Au-Prince in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake.

Amidst crushed concrete and the desperation of the tent camps, there’s an organization called KOFAVIV that has built a haven amidst the chaos. KOFAVIV is a network of women and men who reach into the often dangerous, neglected neighborhoods of Port-Au-Prince to extend a helping hand to victims of sexual violence in the moments when they need it most.  KOFAVIV connects victims to healthcare, legal representation, and, most importantly, community, giving them a voice and a way forward.  KOFAVIV was started by victims of rape who are now changing what it means to be a victim.

"In Spring of 2011, the women of KOFAVIV allowed me to stay with them for a few days, observing their work and contributing a few ideas about how FrontlineSMS could be used to improve coordination.  The organization has used FrontlineSMS to organize gatherings, send urgent security alerts, and manage their network of agents.

"It’s easy to talk about communication; it’s hard and dangerous to see it done so well.  When I celebrate FrontlineSMS and think of the things that we’ve accomplished over the last 7 years, my proudest moments are when I get to see how we’ve contributed, in the tiniest way possible, to the incredible feats of human courage and compassion enacted every single day by the women of KOFAVIV and the organizations like them."

We’re collecting photos of our users telling the world how they use FrontlineSMS. If you want to get in on the act, take a photo of yourself or your team holding a piece of paper or a whiteboard telling the world what you do with FrontlineSMS. For example: ‘I monitor elections’, ‘I safeguard children’ or ‘I make art’. You can see a slideshow of the photos we’ve had so far on our Flickr page.

It doesn’t matter what language it’s in as long as it’s legible and if possible you should be able to see from the photo where it was taken, so, if you can, get out of the office!

You can: - post to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #FrontlineSMSat7 - email the picture and we’ll post them - post the picture on our Ning network and we’ll post them - post them on Flickr or any other web service and let us know where they are

FrontlineSMS used for Inclusive Arts Project in UK

FrontlineSMS really is used all across the world. It is not only used in economically developing countries, but can be used as a tool to connect people in many different contexts. An example of this is the use of our software by interactive arts trio, Invisible Flock. Here Ben Eaton, lead creative at Invisible Flock discusses the way FrontlineSMS is used:

Here at Invisible Flock we make large scale interactive work that ranges from public art, to games, to digital work. We are based in the UK, and at the heart of all that we do is the desire to empower our audiences through participation.

In a way it feels peculiar to be using a platform that is designed and well-documented in its use for some very serious real world applications, however FrontlineSMS has quickly become a central tool in our work.

The reasons we use SMS messages as a platform are, from a design perspective, likely not that different from why the other organisations and NGOs employ them.  Our work seeks to engage our participants in a direct and intimate manner, allowing them interactions outside of the traditional space and time of art consumption.  This means you don’t have to be in a gallery on a Friday evening for you to take part in the work we create.  Using SMS permits us to interweave what we do into the daily lives of our participants in a manner that is both very personal and unobtrusive.

We have been using FrontlineSMS for a year or so and very heavily in the last four to five months. In our most recent piece entitled Your Government Has Gone To Sleep (YGHGTS), we waged a game of revolution in the Chapeltown area of UK city Leeds.  We invited residents to sign up to our game and, over the course of a week, we allowed them to become part of a revolutionary movement orchestrated by text message—in which they communicated with each other and took part in a series of small acts of peaceful revolution that re-examined the makeup of that community.

FrontlineSMS enabled us to quickly and easily create a reactive platform to manage and filter our conversations with players in our game.  We are always conscious, working in the field of interactive art, of the risk of exclusion due to a potential player’s inability to access the technology, and, as such, we shy away from using smart phones and platforms that are likely to actively isolate.  SMS messaging is ubiquitous and cheap and, as such, presents an easy manner for players to enter into our games and for them to continue with it.

We create interaction with FrontlineSMS by making heavy use of the keyword function, grouping participants into subgroups that represent either their progression in a piece’s story or their response to specific questions of tasks.  We allocate codenames to players that also serve as keywords that allow our FrontlineSMS setup to serve as a hub for players to communicate with each other whilst still remaining anonymous.

Perhaps most interestingly for us however is the integration of HTTP trigger commands into FrontlineSMS, as it enables us to create complex interactive responses to participants messages.  In YGHGTS, we used the keyword MANIFESTO to enable participants to input their own political manifestos to a website which updated every few seconds—allowing them to submit content and see it appear almost instantly on the monitor in front of them.  The beauty of FrontlineSMS is that with a keyword, an HTTP command, a simple five-line PHP script and a MySQL database at the other end, we can quickly set up an effective interactive environment.

The ability to use SMS messages to communicate out from FrontlineSMS to a wide variety of applications including physical objects in the real world makes it an invaluable platform in our work.  In the next few weeks, we are creating a series of autonomous interactive explorations of the city of Bradford.  We are using text messages to trigger and orchestrate journeys that take participants to multiple locations, receive phone calls and trigger events in the real world.

We use a software platform called VVVV to run our complicated multimedia environments and we use the inbuilt HTTP command capabilities of FrontlineSMS to integrate VVVV perfectly.  Above is an image showing the simplest setup, using a HTTP command sent from FrontlineSMS to VVVV to trigger playback of an audio file. The same process can then be reversed to control responses and trigger SMS messages from events monitored in the real world by the computer or hardware platforms such as Arduinos.

With this setup, FrontlineSMS becomes almost infinitely extendable, and surpasses its own inbuilt capabilities.  We are currently gearing up to launch a series of interactive journeys across a UK city, which will be our most ambitious project involving FrontlineSMS to date. At the height of the experience we are creating participants will be able to trigger content on a city centre big screen by sending a text message — a very real physical impact from a simple SMS, and all run through FrontlineSMS.

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Here at FrontlineSMS look forward to staying in touch with the Invisible Flock team as they continue to use FrontlineSMS in new and exciting ways! To find out more about Invisible Flock’s work visit You can also watch a video about some of their recent work here.

A positive message for diverse communities

Re-posted via the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)

Who would have thought text messaging could be used to strengthen social change projects the world over? There are now six billion mobile phone connections globally, and many more people own a mobile handset than don’t. In large part due to this mass availability, mobiles are now being used to strengthen many non-profit initiatives.

FrontlineSMS is a social enterprise which enables projects to use the power of text messaging to their advantage, by providing free and open source software that gives the ability to turn a laptop and a mobile phone in to a mass messaging communications hub. Here in the UK, FrontlineSMS is being used by a nationally award-winning voluntary organisation called FolesHillfields Vision Project to strengthen their work building strong bridges between diverse communities in the city of Coventry.

The area that  FolesHillfields  works in is both “blessed by diversity, and struggling with disadvantage” ( This combination of factors can lead to tensions, which if not addressed can cause serious problems. When there is high competition for work in deprived areas people can often feel the need to blame those they perceive as separate to themselves; those who are living in the same area and sharing the same resources, but may be from a different country or religious background.

Diversity can clearly enrich societies, yet it can also be a source of tensions and animosity between people from different ethnic backgrounds, faiths, and areas of the world. Thus FolesHillfields works to counteract this kind of tension in Foleshill and Hillfields, two central Coventry neighbourhoods. The Project facilitates community events and activities which promote social inclusion by bringing different groups together to interact, listen to each other and develop an understanding of their differences and commonalities.

Often the Project will hold structured discussions in which people talk directly about their views on relevant topics, such as racism. Those present will be asked to actively listen to what each other are saying and give everyone a chance to speak, thus ensuring all views are heard. Some discussions focus on how local tensions relate to international issues, thus addressing the global context of any potential community tensions. In addition to these structured discussions the Project hosts lots of informal meet up opportunities for people to have lunch, do some gardening, and share tea together. These activities help to encourage a shared sense of social acceptance and understanding.

One major commonality amongst the diverse population in Coventry is that most people own a mobile phone. Therefore FolesHillfields Vision's organisers make use of FrontlineSMS to send out mass text messages to reach out and bring people together.

The free and open source software allows a single message to be sent to the hundreds of people the project is working with at the click of a button. The messages could be to remind people of key events, to inspire people to stay involved, or to send best wishes for many different types of holidays local people celebrate. For example, on the 21st March a text was sent to say ‘Happy Newroz’; the Iranian New Year. In addition FrontlineSMS allows the Project to split their contacts out in to different groups and text all of the women in the group, for example, with a reminder of International Women’s day celebration, or all of the volunteers with a reminder about the details of a particular event. “FrontlineSMS helps to strengthen the sense of community we are creating, and keep people involved and connected with what we are doing” says Mark Hinton, one of the Project’s founders.

FrontlineSMS software has been downloaded nearly 14,000 times and is being used in over 70 countries for many different purposes including provision health information, mobilizing human rights campaigns, and even monitoring elections. It is great to see effective use of the software here in the United Kingdom, to help support the important work of the FolesHillfieldsVision Project.

To find out more about FolesHillField Vision Project go to

Global learning at the speed of a text message

In a rapidly changing, globalised world education can help young adults to understand life beyond their own national borders. Here, in our thirtieth guest blog post, Alex Monk, School Linking Officer at Plan UK, discusses how FrontlineSMS is being used to support a project called Plan-ed. This project links schools across the globe, and thus helps deepen young people’s understanding of our world today.

“The Plan-ed School Linking programme has been running since 2008 and connects young people aged between 7 - 14 in the UK with their counterparts in China, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Schools exchange pen-pal letters, e-mails, videos and local artifacts. The Linking programme also allows children to share examples of work on mutually relevant topics such as climate change, successful enterprise and Children’s Rights. This helps the young people involved to learn about others their age living in different areas of the world; to recognise their similarities and appreciate their differences.

The Plan-ed project uses a variety of communication methods to help linking schools stay in touch, including sending post, video conferencing, interaction through their website, and more recently text messaging. Over the past six months schools in Malawi, Sierra Leone and the UK have been using FrontlineSMS to communicate with their partner schools. The schools use FrontlineSMS to send texts confirming receipt of posted letters and material. They also exchange text messages about ideas for new projects, and to organise travel for teacher exchanges as part of the linking project, and even to wish each other happy holidays.

The videos here show Headteachers from two schools who have been linked together as part of this Plan-ed project.

Orphent Kawonga (Zombwe School in Malawi) and David Lodge (Countess Anne School in the UK) have been on teacher exchanges to each others schools, to help strengthen their link. Here they discuss the benefits of the use of FrontlineSMS to support their link projects.

Ophent from Zombwe school on School Linking and FrontlineSMS from Plan UK on Vimeo.

David Lodge, Headteacher Countess Anne School from Plan-ed on Vimeo.

The benefit of using FrontlineSMS for the schools involved is that they have a way to regularly stay in touch with each other, and keep a record of their communications. FrontlineSMS has proved particularly helpful in the schools in Malawi in which the internet is not easily accessible, and the post can take a while to get through. Sending and receiving text messages is a quick and convenient way to stay in touch that helps the teachers maintain momentum in the linking school project, thus building sustainable connections between the schools.

Moving forward teachers in Malawi, Sierra Leone and the UK will continue using FrontlineSMS to support their connections with their Link schools. In addition, Plan-ed hopes to explore further ways to utilise FrontlineSMS. For example we are investigating the idea of using FrontlineSMS for more operational purposes; to help Plan-ed’s country coordinators stay in touch with the schools more regularly. It really is a great help to have a piece of technology such as FrontlineSMS, which helps facilitate quick communication in otherwise hard to reach areas of the world.”

For more information on Plan-ed visit:

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!

Crossing the Digital Divide - FrontlineSMS in the developed world

I had a great discussion with some FrontlineSMS users this week as they gear up for their maiden voyage into SMS campaigning. Theirs is one of the larger UK charities, with a solid campaigning operation and a history of groundbreaking approaches - one of the first to run their own research project to spark real social change, back in the 1960s. But for one reason or another, they had never tried campaigning using SMS. Perhaps they went straight from snail mail to email? Perhaps the 160 character limit put them off? Either way, they are now taking their first steps towards integrating it into their campaigning approach - not as a standalone gimmick, but as another tool in the toolbox. We talk a lot on this blog about the potential of FrontlineSMS, and SMS more generally, to reach people in remote areas in the developing world, underserved by their governments. But I think it's worth remembering about the islands of vulnerability and isolation that can exist in the developed world too. At the end of 2008 there were 76.8 million active mobile subscriptions in the UK, or 1.26 for every inhabitant. But 10 million people in the UK (one sixth of the population) have never used the internet, and 4 million of them are among the least advantaged members of society (Independent). The UK now has a 'Digital Inclusion Champion', Martha Lane Fox, the founder of, who is tasked with helping those 4 million people to get online by the time the 2010 London Olympics rolls around. For organisations working with some of this group, mobile could be a valuable communication and interaction tool.

The Foleshillfields Vision Priject

The Foleshillfields Vision Project in Coventry, West Midlands, UK, uses FrontlineSMS to keep in touch with their volunteers and community group members, informing them about timings and activities. For the people they work with, as for many of us, phones and texting are an intimate part of daily life - it's how they arrange to meet their friends, find out what's going on, arrange playdates for their children. It's entirely natural that their community organisation is there too. The Project was already using SMS, and FrontlineSMS has made keeping in touch easier and faster for the team. You'll hear more about them in a future guest blog post.

So what should you think about when considering using SMS in your work in a developed country? In my meeting the other day, we discussed a few things to run through when shaping your FrontlineSMS intervention:

  • Who is your audience? How well do you understand how the group you work with use mobile, and SMS in particular? Young mums, teenagers, and people with learning disabilities are all groups I've heard about recently as enthusiastic 'texters' and great candidates for SMS communications - but could you say the same for most older people?
  • How can your SMS communication with them have a real impact? Can it form part of a wider campaign with an established 'ask' such as signing a petition, which could be easily done with a keyword reply to a broadcast SMS from you?
  • Who can you reach with SMS that you can't reach through other means, and what would you most like to get from an interaction with those people?
  • Whatever you want to achieve, it's important to think through whether it will work well with SMS. For example, it's hard to disseminate large volumes of information in a text; similarly referring people to a website using SMS won't work well unless they have a smart-phone with a good data service. But SMS is great for reminders (that your radio programme is coming on, or that they have an appointment), passing on helpline phone numbers, or doing a straw poll - 'have you experienced bullying at school today?'

What other issues should we think through? We'd love to hear from you, and we might be able to pull your advice together into a Get-Started Guide for this kind of work - so do get in touch!

I guess my main plug is this: Don't make SMS just an add-on to your communications. This is a powerful tool that can reach the parts other media can't - how could you use it to start new conversations in your community?

From Russia with Love

In the twenty-second in our series of FrontlineSMS Guest Posts, a bit of a departure from the norm. Aleksei is our star software tester, and as part of the testing he's been trying it out in his wife's "live environment". His story provides some interesting insights into how small enterprises of any stripe can make use of FrontlineSMS for staff coordination and management. His wife Elena Ovsiannikova, leader of a beauty consulting team, tells us how she has been using the software to support her new team members. “I work with a lot of people, and a lot of information. I advise my clients about cosmetics and perfumes from several famous international companies, and I have a team to help me. Sharing information about so many products with new team members is not easy. I have lots of lovely pamphlets for them, but carrying them all around with you all day in a little handbag? Impossible, they're too heavy. We are beautiful women, not robots!

Yet even with a smartphone with a good browser, and email client, and instant messenger services, keeping in up-to-date in the field can be a challenge for a new consultant. That's where FrontlineSMS comes in.

Aleksei Ivanov, my husband, has been a nut about technology and social optimization all his life. He's now an IT project manager and he suggested using my business to help the FrontlineSMS team test software and translate it into Russian. He showed me how to use the software to get information quickly, do surveys among my team members, support them and save them time.

"Although broadband Internet, Wi-Fi and WiMAX networks have good penetration in Moscow (Russia), mobile phones became indispensable personal devices so long ago that I can't honestly remember when it happened,' Aleksei says. 'It feels like we've always had mobile phones and GSM networks in our lives. The first GSM network in Moscow was only built in 1992 and it was very expensive, but now it's quite cheap and you can use several SIM-cards for different needs - from voice calls to 3G mobile internet in a USB-modem on a laptop or netbook. But for young people, text messaging is still the best known and most-used communication tool, and it seemed to me that it could really help Elena.

"Knowing all of that, I decided to help my wife to design and build a mobile database to help answer frequently asked questions around her activity, such as dates of marketing campaigns, dates of training courses for new representatives and coordinators, and so on. And it works really well! For example, not so long ago a new representative, meeting with a client, forgot the dates of the current campaign when 30% discounts apply. She sent the short message CAMPAIGN07 to our FrontlineSMS number - an ordinary mobile number which was written in her mobile phone address book. She got a response in less than a minute with dates of the beginning and the end of the campaign."

I also use FrontlineSMS for surveys. I have no time to meet every week with every member of my team to check up on their working process, and not all of them have email - but all my team members have mobile phones and are able to use them for one simple action – responding to text messages.

Finally, I use FrontlineSMS to coordinate team attendance at training courses. If I SMS the team to ask who would like to attend a particular course, using FrontlineSMS, those who are interested text back 'YES', and their names and mobile numbers are emailed to me using the Email option in keyword actions. They are then one conversation in my email, and easily forward to a secretary to book the right room the training.

We want to say huge thanks to Ken Banks - founder - who realised this fantastic idea, and to all the FrontlineSMS team! o/